Racism in Sacramento schools: Past, present and future

Two phrenologists measuring intellectual capacity by injecting and removing putty from skulls. Like all previous pseudo-scientific efforts to legitimize racism, these experiments ultimately did not withstand rigors of the scientific process [Open source illustration].

Last week, a C.K. McClatchy High School student presented a science fair project that justified unequal racial enrollment in elite academic programs (specifically the Humanities and International Studies Program).

The student—who is male, East Asian and academically accomplished—concludes, “the lower average IQs of blacks, Southeast Asians, and nonwhite Hispanics means they are not as likely as non-Hispanic whites and Northeast Asians to be accepted into a more academically rigorous program such as HISP. Therefore, the racial disproportionality of HISP is justified.”

The insidious conclusion drew public outrage.

Researchers have observed a myriad of ways in which winners rationalize their status and exert dominance over others, regardless of the inequality of conditions, from Jane Goodall’s documentation of intimidation displays among chimpanzee tribes to Paul Piff’s study on how winners of a rigged Monopoly game “felt like they deserved to win the game” and became “less attuned to all the other things that contributed” to victory.

With this dynamic in mind, it was only a matter of time before a winner in this current educational system—one that allows socioeconomic and cultural stratification on the basis of race to largely dictate academic opportunity and success—claimed that his success was inherently deserved.

Sacramento-area schools and districts must consider how they may have contributed to this student’s worldview, and how such worldviews can be meaningfully challenged.

School districts across the country have been grappling with increasing racial antipathy, and greater Sacramento is no different. McClatchy itself has been on the receiving end: At a girls’ basketball game against Oak Ridge High School in El Dorado Hills, Oak Ridge spectators lobbed racist taunts against McClatchy’s players of Asian descent.

At Pleasant Grove High School in Elk Grove, a video of a student wishing death upon black people went viral (so much so that a Google search for the school autocompletes with “racist video” among top results). An emergency meeting drew more than 600 students, teachers and community members who voiced concern over the normality of racist incidents at EGUSD and lack of substantive administrative action.

Less well-known, however, are incidents in which the Sacramento City Unified School District was investigated for student civil rights violations. In 2014, the U.S. Office of Civil Rights “investigated whether the District discriminated against students at Lubin Elementary School on the basis of race or national origin by implementing policies and procedures that denied Hispanic students equal access to gifted and talented education classrooms.” The investigation gave way to a federal lawsuit the following year.

In a prior investigation, OCR concluded that Sac City “failed to respond appropriately and effectively” after a sixth-grade student notified the district that students harassed her “on the basis of her race by calling her a racially derogatory name.” OCR stressed the importance of the school environment to which the harassment contributed: “Under some circumstances, a single comment may not, by itself, rise to the level of a racially hostile environment. However […] students in elementary school, who hear racial comments or epithets, may be influenced to behave in a similar manner.”

One can only imagine how such racial second-classing by students and staff skew the development of student mindsets on race, and how such mindsets continue to skew as these students progress through higher grade levels where courses become further stratified and racially segregated.

K-12 students may be a handful, but they are certainly not oblivious: They will see this racial achievement gap and, sooner or later, will encounter statistics showing differences in average IQ between races. Some, such as the McClatchy student, will assume causality between the latter and the former.

If our schools wish to avoid students coming to and propagating these deleterious conclusions, they must first revisit the examples they set for students and remove barriers to entry to learning opportunities that allow for racial bias. Since OCR’s investigation into Lubin Elementary’s placement practices, SCUSD and nearby districts such as Natomas Unified and EGUSD removed the teacher referral requirement for GATE screening and opened testing to all early elementary students. At EGUSD, where I analyze these outcomes, open access to testing qualified more African-American, Hispanic and Pacific Islander students for GATE programs.

Unfortunately, the achievement gap is carved much deeper into the features of American public education and remains largely out of control of K-12 districts. Sac City may be able to create a more ethnically inclusive academic environment, but the district cannot fully mitigate the documented effects of poverty, income inequality and living in a racist society on black and brown children.

Instead, schools should consider becoming greater authorities on the complexities of IQ and “innate” intelligence with students, even if this begets uncomfortable conversations.

Students like the one who created the controversial project have much to learn about intelligence and race. They need to learn that the achievement gap—from the school readiness gap of preschoolers to the college graduation gap among young adults—is largely attributed to historical, systemic and institutional inequality rather than to cognitive differences among race.

They need to learn that external conditions of race, poverty and turmoil undermine cognitive development, and that claims of racial and genetic determinism of IQ are not considered fringe because of their unsavory political incorrectness but because, fundamentally, these claims lack scientific merit.

Perhaps, then, will more privileged students realize that weaponizing IQ disparities as educational determinants further exacerbates these disparities, essentially twisting the knife left in the backs of peoples that have already endured centuries upon centuries of war, human rights violations and humanity’s worst examples of economic and political subjugation.

Schools may not feel comfortable leading these discussions or presenting such identity-threatening materials to students, and local communities may object. However, these discussions are already being had, and schools need to affirm that IQ differences are not something to conform to but to ameliorate: acknowledging the racial IQ gap isn’t racist; using it to justify racial second-classing is. After all, denying access to academic programs on the basis of IQ is tantamount to punishing a child for something out of his or her control. It is directly oppositional to merit and the very purpose of universal public education.

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Chung Leung
Chung Leung analyzes college transitions and outcomes, school culture/climate and math course placements, among other things, for the Elk Grove Unified School District. He received an M.A. from Stanford’s School of Education in 2014.