Who Teaches

A while back I asked some family members and white childhood friends who they remember as the first person of authority — a person whose opinions they were expected to respect even if they didn’t agree — who wasn’t white, in their lives.

Very few remembered anyone at all.

I grew up in a fairly segregated town and went to Catholic schools. All my elementary school teachers were white. In high school I had one black teacher and one Hispanic teacher. In college (state school) I had two professors of color, though there were more professors of color teaching, mostly in ethnic studies courses, who I didn’t encounter. It wasn’t until 10 years ago that I had non-white, non-male bosses. Mr. A started working for a woman of color for the first time two years ago.

An under-covered aspect of the Obama freakout (and then the Clinton freakout afterward) was the idea that a lot of white people living segregated lives — the only black people they ever saw were on TV, probably playing football — had to confront the idea of a black person having authority over them. Blah blah, I know, the president works for us, but there was a huge swell of rage at “having” to listen to a black man. They’d never “had” to do that before, and damn if it didn’t piss them off.

Segregation of AUTHORITY matters as much as segregation of housing, jobs, amenities and everything else. It matters tremendously to children of color: 

Gershenson, Hart, Lindsay, and Papageorge demonstrate that if a black male student has at least one black teacher in the third, fourth, or fifth grade, he is significantly less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to aspire to attend a four-year college (as proxied by taking a college entrance exam). They find that these effects are especially pronounced for economically disadvantaged black male students. For instance, they find that a disadvantaged black male’s exposure to at least one black teacher in elementary school reduces his probability of dropping out of high school by nearly 40 percent. This estimated effect is not just statistically significant, but also highly educationally relevant.

We are long overdue for so many corrections in this country, and this is the last one coming for myself and my fellow white folk: That people who don’t look like us have something to teach us, and that we should shut up and learn.


4 thoughts on “Who Teaches

  1. We need a national conversation on education. It is an item on a list of things in this country for which we pay a considerable sum and don’t get what we need (as a nation) in return. I do not have the answer. I am sure that there is not just one answer. Education is not true or false. Or even multiple choice

  2. My G’grandfather was an enrolled Black Seminole who married a Choctaw girl. Their daughter raised me.

    Fast forward through thirty-five years of hard living: but for two members of the anthropology dept. (locals, so to speak) through six years of college and university and a year of law school (raising four kids alone) not one instructor was of color. All white.

  3. For me, it was my first-grade teacher. To be honest, I don’t remember her name (Greene maybe?), but I remember her because my less-than-Enlightened Southern-Heritage parents were quite adamant that, despite their general disdain for African-Americans, if they ever found out I was less than perfectly deferential to her, I would get a tanning like I could not believe.

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