Skip Navigation
We use cookies to offer you a better browsing experience, provide ads, analyze site traffic, and personalize content. If you continue to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies.
Black high school student
NEA News

Why NEA Members Are Talking About Racism

Do we care about children? Do we care about justice, equity, and opportunity? Then we need to talk about racism in our schools. Because we’re failing—not as individuals—but as a society that operates within inherently racist systems.
Published: October 2019

The Cancer of Institutionalized Racism

It still exists—just more invisibly than ever before.

Why do we care about racism in education?

Because we care about children.

Because we care about justice, and equity, and opportunity.

And because, says NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, our calling as public educators and union members is to “build a system where there is a place of honor for all in this diverse and interdependent world, a place where every blessed child has a fair chance to live the lives that will make them happy.”

And because we’re failing—not every child in America today gets a place of honor, or a fair chance, or even the full recognition of his or her humanity.

The problem is institutional racism, or the historic ways of seeing people and doing things in the United States, which our founding fathers entrenched in our public systems, including education, housing, law enforcement, and more. “As a teacher I have done my homework,” said Eskelsen García this spring in Austin, Texas. “Our history is clear: We have never in this country, from the Mayflower to this very moment, ever achieved racial justice in education. Never.”

In 2015, NEA committed the union to fight institutional racism through a “business item” submitted by NEA’s Board of Directors and adopted by NEA Representative Assembly (RA) delegates. It begins, “We, the members of the National Education Association, acknowledge the existence in our country of institutional racism—the societal patterns and practices that have the net effect of imposing oppressive conditions and denying rights, opportunity, and equality based upon race.”

Good Hearts Can't Eradicate Institutional Racism

NEA President Lily Eskelsen García speaks at the 2019 SXSW Conference, challenging the audience to move beyond good intentions.

Three years later, RA delegates followed up with a resolution about white supremacy culture, saying, “(NEA) believes that, in order to achieve racial and social justice, educators must acknowledge the existence of white supremacy culture as a primary root cause of institutional racism, structural racism, and white privilege.” It also says, “the Association will actively advocate for social and educational strategies fostering the eradication of institutional racism and white privilege….”

Recalls Eskelsen García: “We debated that among 10,000 people. There were tears. There were people who were angry, and there were people who were pleading. It passed overwhelmingly and is now the official policy of the National Education Association.”

The Roots of Institutional Racism

Centuries ago, our education system was designed, says Eskelsen García, “to ensure that some kids got an excellent education … and some kids got an education that was an insult to the word ‘education.’ It was an insult to their dignity. It was an insult to their humanity. And it was intentional. It was a system purposely designed to advantage some and to hold others in an oppressed and inferior place, sorted by the color of their skin, by race.”

The people who put the system in place “truly believed the white race was naturally superior, scientifically superior, to others, while black people were so inferior it was justifiable to consider them property,” notes Eskelsen García.

Today, few people will say those words aloud, notes Eskelsen García. But the systems are still in place—just look at school funding or AP enrollment. “The kids who get field trips and AP Calculus, and the kids who get test-prep and for-profit charters, are still divided along racial lines,” she points out. The inequities did not end with Brown v. Board in 1954.

Perpetuating Institutionalized Racism

NEA President Lily Eskelsen García speaks at the 2019 SXSW Conference, with video highlights of educators and students sharing their experiences.

Just ask the students, parents, and educators in Denver, Los Angeles, and Oakland, or any of the other “majority-minority” places where NEA members took to the streets last year in #RedForEd strikes, rallies, or protests. “Look at the students served in these places. Overwhelmingly you’ll see black and brown faces,” urges Eskelsen García.

What you won’t see in their schools? School nurses. Librarians. Counselors. Arts, music, or theater classes. High-level STEM classes. New textbooks. Smaller class sizes.

Institutionalized racism still exists—just more invisibly and more elegantly than ever before, says Eskelsen García.

We Need to Talk About This

Very few people—especially white ones—like to talk about race and racism. “When we talk about a system that’s rigged to advantage whites …, people feel like they’re being accused, like they don’t merit the lives they live,” says Eskelsen García.

It’s easier to talk about poverty. But poverty is not the root cause of inequities in education—it’s racism. Talking about poverty drives us to “focus on acts of charity, instead of acts of justice,” says Eskelsen García.

Most people don’t want to confront their own implicit biases—the kind that drive unconscious discipline decisions, or class placement. “For a teacher, [implicit bias] might affect who gets suspended because ‘you need to be taught a lesson’ and who’s given a second chance because ‘all of us make mistakes,’” says Eskelsen García, “or who gets counseled into college-level courses and who gets tracked into remedial reading.”

Implicit bias also blinds us to institutional racism, “so that sometimes we don’t see what needs to be disrupted and dismantled,” she says. We have to seek the truth, see it, and talk about it—even if it is uncomfortable. And then we have to act. Information is fine, but “if it’s not a step to action, it doesn’t count.”

Race—Now is the Time to Talk

This is not the job for any one person. “Knowing your individual responsibility to challenge racism—and the system that enables it—is part of the profound trust placed in every single educator’s hands, but institutional racism cannot be eradicated by individuals with good hearts,” says Eskelsen García. “I might have the best heart and the best of intentions, and that will not get my sixth graders the programs they need.… ”

Collective action is necessary, she says, and it is the work of all NEA members, all people who believe in the promise of public education, of the potential of every preschooler.

“Our mission is to create a new normal: A love of all our children, a love of their common humanity,” she says. “Our mission is to eradicate the cancer of institutional racism.”

A Racist Incident Happens at School. What Now?

How educators and community members are digging deeper into issues of race and bias to effect long-term cultural change

Late last year, a cellphone video surfaced in Dover, N.H., of two students in an eleventh-grade American history class singing about the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and killing black people. Set to the melody of “Jingle Bells,” it begins, “White caps on our heads, blood beneath our feet, laughing until they’re dead, ha ha ha!”

In the days that followed, a familiar chain of events unfolded: Officials promised to investigate and address this “incident of extreme racial insensitivity.” The union pledged to work with the district to get the facts and to respect all involved. Local reporters found an anonymous parent who said, “I am concerned. Very concerned.” Then, national journalists arrived: “High Schoolers Sing KKK Song in Class, and Teacher Gets Put on Leave,” reported the New York Times.

As racist incidents and hate crimes occur more frequently on U.S. campuses, educators are well-acquainted with the playbook of immediate responses. Promise an investigation. Hire diversity trainers and/or hold a community meeting. Assure, re-assure, and then, after the cameras are packed up, move on.

Being Informed is not Enough

NEA President Lily Eskelsen García speaks at the 2019 South by Southwest Conference (SXSW), with video highlights of educators sharing how to translate information into action.

But in Dover, educators and community members hit pause. With the help of equity experts from the Center for Education Equity, an assistance center funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Dover’s educators, parents, and other community members are digging deeper into issues of race and bias. “People are engaged and they want to do more,” says Lisa Dillingham, president of the Dover Teachers’ Union. “What’s been hard, what’s been the most difficult thing, is we’re trying to focus on the issue, not the incident.”

“The best possible outcome of a racist incident is long-term change in a community,” says Harry Lawson, director of NEA’s Human and Civil Rights department. It’s not easy or quick, but the work of identifying and challenging racial biases, replacing racist policies and practices, and changing a school’s culture are essential to the NEA mission to “prepare every student to succeed in a diverse and interdependent world.”

“Take a deep breath and keep the objective in mind—the desire to create a school where all are welcome and can thrive,” advises Teaching Tolerance’s “Responding to Hate and Bias at School” guide.

The Work Ahead

The Dover incident was far from the only racist event to make headlines in 2018. In November alone, a viral video revealed Idaho educators dressed as a Mexican border wall for Halloween; a Missouri student wore a KKK hood and robe to class; and, near Indianapolis, messages with the n-word, plus others saying “blacks will die” and “school shootings are fun,” were left in a high school bathroom stall.

Meanwhile, for every “runaway slave game”—yes, that was an actual physical education class activity at a Northern Virginia school last year—that gets reported, hundreds of other racist incidents never make the news, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has found. For example, in 2018, SPLC counted 821 media reports of school-based incidents. By comparison, educators reported 3,265 incidents to SPLC in the fall of 2018 alone.

And, while Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, LGBTQ intolerance, and a host of other hatreds claim a share, racism accounts for 63 percent of incidents reported in the media and 33 percent reported by educators, according to SPLC.

Visually Speaking—Teaching the Human Spirit

Educators and students to talk about the issues that effect them most.

It certainly keeps Daryl Williams busy. Williams, a former Maryland district administrator, is one of the equity specialists who visited Dover twice this spring to meet with about 50 community members, including the superintendent and Dillingham, plus other educators, parents, and students. On the first day, “we started off trying to heal,” says Williams. On the second, the group set priorities for future work, including professional development for educators.

“To some degree, some thought we would have solutions right then and there,” says Williams. “Others want to delve into a more systemic approach, and work with these issues over a period of years, which is what we suggest.”

Typically, a multi-year approach to equity includes professional development around classroom practices and examination of curriculum, and considers policies around student discipline, student placement in higher-level classes, as well as special education, teacher recruitment and retention, and more. Williams says he is waiting to hear if the district will commit to that work. But Dillingham points out that Dover schools actually began the work around diversity and culture, at the superintendent’s urging, before the incident.

“My fear is that this work is always going to be associated with this incident, and no matter how hard we emphasize that it isn’t the reason for all this, it’s always going to be there,” says Dillingham. And if people are still arguing, months later, about whether the girl who taped the jingle should have had her phone in class, or whether the teacher should have been fired, they’ll never get to the real issues: Is Dover a place where racism is embedded in classroom practice and district policy? Or is it a learning environment where all students can reach their potential?

In fact, Dover is like a lot of places that Williams visits, a mostly white community where most people want to do right for all kids. “I haven’t been any place where I haven’t seen caring,” he says. “They may not know what to do, they may need help and resources …, but I haven’t experienced a place where people have said, ‘I don’t care about diversity. I don’t care about kids of color.’

Part of the work is recognizing that the biases exist.

“I have members who are doing great things with all students, and they say, ‘I don’t get this. I don’t treat that person any differently than anybody else.’ Part of me wonders if that’s true,” says Dillingham. “I’ll say for myself, I’m fearful of what I might find out about myself! Do I treat students differently?”

Much of the work has less to do with self-examination than educators might expect, says Williams. Defensive people aren’t effective problem solvers, he notes.

“We don’t want to examine people. We want them to solve problems,” says Williams. “We want their experiences and resources to solve problems.”

“There is a lot of work to be done,” notes Dillingham. “If people expect it to be a quick thing … well, it’s not.”

How to Respond to Incidents of Racism and Hate in Schools

Steps you can take to respond to incidents of hateful words, actions, and images and make sure your students feel welcome, supported, and valued.

1) Be present and available to observe and listen.
Incidents can occur during the school day, as well as after school hours, in school buildings, classrooms, hallways, bathrooms, in the cafeteria, on the playground, on the bus. Be present—especially during school transitions. Ask students how they are feeling. Tell students they can come to you, that they are safe with you, that you will stand up for them!

2) Intervene! Make sure all are safe.
If you witness racist slurs or name calling, or other acts of racism and hate, stop the incident. Get assistance from other school staff members. Make sure to ask the targeted student(s), “Are you okay?”

3) Give a clear message.
Hate and racism are unacceptable. Remain calm as you address students. Cite relevant school or classroom rules. Students who commit acts of hate must hear the message that their behavior is wrong and harms others. Targeted students must hear the message that caring adults will protect them.

4) Follow up after the incident.
Do not require students to apologize or make amends immediately as you stop the incident. You may not know the full story. Keep everyone calm as you first focus on safety. Then advise all that you will follow up.

5) Support the targeted students.
Make eye contact with the targeted student(s), demonstrate empathy, and reassure them that what happened was not their fault. Never tell a student to ignore bullying, hate speech, or a racist attack.

6) Address the bystanders.
If bystanders stood up, reinforce their efforts. Let them know you admire their courage and thank them for speaking up. If the bystanders did not intervene, give them examples of how to intervene appropriately next time (such as, get help from an adult, tell the person to stop.)

7) Investigate, document, and follow up.
An investigation should be conducted. Remember to question all involved individually. If appropriate, impose immediate consequences. Be sure to provide the necessary support for all involved, such as counseling. Join with your colleagues to assess ways to improve your school climate to build a culture that prevents incidents of hate.

8) Be a caring advocate.
Continue to make sure students are supported beyond the incident. Reach out to staff who can provide guidance and emotional support. Advocate for students by making a serious effort to stop racism and hate at your school. Involve parents and the local community.

Bullying—It Kinda Feels Hopeless

Get more from

We're here to help you succeed in your career, advocate for public school students, and stay up to date on the latest education news. Sign up to stay informed.
National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.