We need to be disruptors of institutional racism in our schools

This is a long post, but we can’t talk about race in sound bytes. These are the remarks I delivered at the South by SouthWest conference in Austin, Texas. March 5th, 2019.

Gracias a todos! Gracias por venir a esta conversación acerca de la justicia.

Thanks for coming to a conversation about justice. Specifically, racial justice – because that’s always easy to talk about. And even more specific than that – racial justice in education.

I feel perfectly qualified to talk about racial justice in education because I am a 6th grade teacher from Utah (where diversity means you found a Presbyterian). Which is not true, but it’s what people think.

I’m also the president of the National Education Association, the largest union in the United States of America. We represent over 3 million teachers, support professionals like school custodians and secretaries, college professors, retired educators and student teachers.

But more than that, I think you should know that I am a fabulous teacher. You would want to be in my 6th grade. I’ve taught suburban kids who’ve never missed a meal. I’ve taught kids with disabilities. I’ve taught homeless kids and foster kids waiting for families. I’ve taught kids who don’t speak English. I’ve taught kids who are gifted and talented.

And I’ve taught more than one Gifted and Talented homeless kid with a disability who was learning English and teaching me Spanish. (Thank you, Julio)

I’ve taught white Mormon kids and black Muslim kids and brown Catholic kids and I’ve taught Sunday school at the Unitarian Church where we pray ‘To Whom it May Concern.”

I think it’s important to have a teacher like me talk to social justice Rabble Rousers like you – about Racial Justice in Education. Because you may not think racial justice and education are necessarily connected, but I want to make the case that it’s where you begin.

First, as a teacher let me say I have done my homework. Our history is clear: We have never in this country from the Mayflower to this very moment EVER achieved Racial Justice in Education. Never.

Half our Founding Fathers were slave holders in states where you could go to prison for teaching a black child how to read. Please let that sink in: Teaching a black person the ABC’s was a criminal offense.


Racial – Justice – Education… Not everyone gets that link. RACIAL – JUSTICE – EDUCATION. These concepts are interconnected. And we have to talk about them together.

That is harder than you might think. I know how hard it is to talk about Race – that our education system was designed for centuries to ensure that SOME kids got an excellent education. SOME kids got an ok 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 this system into place believed that the White race was naturally, scientifically superior to others; that Latinos, that Asians, that American Indians were naturally, scientifically inferior; and that at the bottom of all, was the opposite of White, the black race was so inferior that it was justifiable to consider them property.

Based on that racism; White superiority – Black and Brown inferiority – and that it just seemed common sense to construct systems that recognized this scientific fact.

Why would you care about equal access to educational opportunities when students of color would simply not be able to use those opportunities. It would simply be a waste of resources.

Few people will say those words out loud today, but the systems are still in place – the way we fund schools; the way we limit advanced programs, and the arts and sports; 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.

Brown vs. the Board did not disrupt Institutional Racism. It simply got more creative. It got more invisible. And if we cannot get comfortable talking about it, our students will continue to suffer.

My union, the National Education Association, took a giant leap forward by speaking the Truth out loud. It surprised me how hard it was for people – people I love; people I represent – to hear the truth. It made their skin crawl, they were so uncomfortable.

But we brought to our national convention a resolution to debate; an articulation of what we believe is going on, and our responsibility to confront it.

We needed to be clear that what we were dealing with was not a few bigots; a few bad actors. It is an embedded CULTURE in our society; a CULTURE built around concepts of race: That White is naturally superior. And other races; foreign ethnicities are naturally inferior. That this racist culture is against our ideals of freedom and equality; and it is our responsibility to fight it.


We weren’t subtle:

1. White Supremacy Culture

The National Education Association 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. …

… the Association believes that the norms, standards, and organizational structures manifested in White supremacy culture perpetually exploit and oppress people of color and serve as detriments to racial justice.

… the Association believes that the invisible racial benefits of White privilege, which are automatically conferred irrespective of wealth, gender, and other factors, severely limit opportunities for people of color and impede full achievement of racial and social justice.

Therefore, the Association will actively advocate for social and educational strategies fostering the eradication of institutional racism and White privilege perpetuated by White supremacy culture. (2018)

We debated this resolution last year. It passed overwhelmingly and is now the official policy of the National Education Association.

It was hard to talk about this. But, by the way, our students are having these conversations. They’re talking about how Black Student Lives Matter and sharing on social media their experiences and their hopes. But sometimes it takes longer for big people to be that courageous.

One of my colleagues, a woman who’s been teaching for years, a woman who feels strongly about justice and fairness for all her students, was offended by this resolution. She said: Lily, this makes me feel that because I’m white, I’ve done something wrong. That’s not fair.

I have black kids and white kids and I treat them the same. I don’t see color. I can see this is about poverty. Why do we have to make this about race?

I love this woman. I put my arms around her and I whispered in her ear: We have to talk about it because it’s so hard for you to talk about it.

Shouldn’t we ask ourselves WHY this is so hard to talk about? WHY does race make us so uncomfortable.

We can talk about income inequality and how the system is rigged to advantage those who already have wealth and keep those who don’t oppressed. We can talk about solutions to poverty and have open debates and no one feels uncomfortable.

But when we talk about a system rigged to advantage whites; rigged to oppress communities of color – it triggers a different dynamic in many people. They feel they are being accused of not meriting the lives they’ve lived. They feel they are being accused of doing something wrong.

And that feels uncomfortable.

And that’s ok. It’s ok to feel uncomfortable with talking about race. Because that’s the only way we’ll begin to get comfortable.

The progressive movement, the labor movement, philanthropists, funders, electoral campaigns, the tech industry, the women’s movement – the great disruptors of injustice – including caring, innovative educators – too many of us have had a huge blind spot when it comes to race and racism.

And every time we fail to call it out; to speak its name, every time we fail to hold ourselves accountable to our part that (without our consent) is hard-wired into this system; every time we refuse to talk about something uncomfortable – we perpetuate institutional racism.

Let’s watch a video.

(VIDEO #1 Now is the time to Talk about Race)

Not everyone is uncomfortable talking about racism. There are so many brave people; brave organizations talking about the institutional racism that constructs systems of prisons and pensions and housing and health care – but I’m here as a teacher because the most insidious racism of all is the one that denies education.

The formula for all institutional oppression – to keep the oppressors in power and deny power to the oppressed is always the same:

Suppress democracy – make sure certain people have no political voice

Suppress labor unions – make sure that the middle class is kept constantly insecure to promote fearful obedience.

Suppress education

You keep women “in their place”

You keep the poor “in their place”

Immigrants, the disabled,

American Indians are forced into boarding schools away from their families;

Native Hawaiians in the 1800s are limited to a 3rd grade education and then put on the pineapple plantations;

Enslaved black people are made criminals for learning to read;

Freed black people are forced into segregated school systems designed to have them feel their inferiority and know their inferior places in the world.

This suppression goes on for so long, it becomes such a part of your world, you’re born into it; it all seems normal to the vast majority of people – many of them, the oppressed themselves – generation after generation raised to believe that this was simply the way the world is; raised not to question the way the world is.


Especially in education. The secret sauce to successful systemic racism is to make it look normal. Look, “these” schools have counselors and librarians and computers and AP everything and sports and theater and dance and music and French classes… and “those” schools have test prep and for-profit charters.

And “these” schools, yes, are in upper middle-class white communities and “those” schools, yes, are in poor black and brown communities.

But the system explains why that’s not racist. Because you get more funding from property taxes in richer neighborhoods, so those schools are naturally going to be able to afford more.

There’s nothing natural about tax policy. Tax policy is not photosynthesis. It’s not a chemical reaction. It’s the most intentional, man-made part of a political system. And the result today is the same result as under segregation. They are separate systems: one for predominantly white and another for communities of color. They are unequal. And that is not normal.

But it seems normal. Because the implicit bias in our minds accepts it.

Look at the Black Face scandals in Virginia – You don’t think every single politician in this country is going through their old year books right now? Because it isn’t something they would remember.

It was just a little fun.

Everybody was doing it. It didn’t mean you were a racist to make a little joke of the most demeaning, humiliating, degrading depiction of African Americans as unintelligent, dishonorable butts of jokes for the entertainment of white audiences.

Consider Trump from Day One: Mexicans are rapists and thieves and drug dealers. But then comes the worst part of that speech, after that rant, and let me quote: And some, I assume, are good people.

“Some”? Some being the exception to the rule. And even worse: “I assume”? Because you know, who can be sure? It could be all of them. You assassinate the character of all when you’re not SURE that even SOME are good people.

Donald Trump is the embodiment of Explicit Racism. That’s when you just say that white is better than everyone else. You complain that you don’t get more immigrants from Norway. Why is all your immigration is coming from “poop hole” countries (I’m from Utah. Work with me.).

But implicit racism is just as deep. And maybe more dangerous, because it’s invisible. And We all have it. You do. I do.

3 year-olds do. My husband Alberto and I were visiting our granddaughter. Alberto is ELL-H (and English Language Learner – Husband).
He gets frustrated when he runs out of English words, and we started speaking Spanish in front of Baby Girl and her friend who just starred at us hearing: Pero mi amor – Tu sabes que siempre tengo razón y estás siempre equivocado. (you don’t have to know what that means, but we were having a fight and I was winning.)

And Baby Girl’s 3 year-old friend, got angry and said: Stop it. Talk Normal.

And we laughed.

Until I remember a conversation with my Mom. She’s from Panama, and I was scolding her for not teaching us Spanish. I said: I would be gold at my school if I spoke Spanish. The principal would be waxing my car to keep me happy.

She said: Well, when I first got to the states and I could find someone to speak Spanish with, I noticed that people around us were frowning like we were doing something wrong. So, I just decide not to teach you. In fact, I decided to stop speaking Spanish. I just stopped.

And she got tears in her eyes. She said: I thought I was protecting you. People here don’t like hearing Spanish.

By the way, I speak Spanish now. All teachers can learn. And if you want to learn Spanish really fast, I highly recommend my method of marrying a Mexican. (So much better than Rosetta Stone.)

The implicit bias we all have comes from what appears to us as normal or not normal. There’s a scene in the movie, Green Book. A very proper, well educated, impeccably dressed black concert pianist is traveling by car on tour across the deep South in the 60s. His driver is a white, brutish bar bouncer from New Jersey.

They pull over on the side of a country road to fix a tire. The black man takes a stretch while the driver fixes the tire. He looks up and the black field workers with hoes and torn clothes stop what they’re doing and staring at him. He stares back. They just stare at each other. Something’s not right. The white man opens the car door for the black man. He gets in. Nothing feels normal. You can see it in their faces. Something’s not normal. This is wrong.

Take this implicit bias test yourself: Scenario 1: You see a woman strolling a baby on the sidewalk. The woman is white and the baby is black. What pops into your mind? The woman adopted a black baby? Or the woman is married to a black man?

Scenario 2: The woman is black. The baby is white. What pops into your mind? The woman works for the baby’s family is what popped into my mind. It probably wouldn’t occur to many people that the black woman adopted the white baby. It probably wouldn’t occur to you in the first scenario that the white woman worked for a black family.

Our brains love to categorize the thousands of things we experience every day. Implicit bias – based on our experiences; what we assume is how we’re wired.

With implicit bias, it’s what just seems normal to you. But what seems normal to you has dire consequences about decision you make and how you automatically feel about people based on race. Your implicit bias might affect who you want to work with; how you might literally judge someone if you were on a jury; whether or not you think someone is capable or honest or lazy.

For a teacher, it 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. Who gets counseled into college-level courses and who gets tracked into remedial reading.

Study after study finds that students of color are disciplined more harshly and less likely to be identified as gifted. Black students are 3 times more likely to be suspended and expelled than their white peers for the same types of infractions.

Black children make up only 18% of all preschoolers – but they make up 55% of preschoolers who are suspended. (Why we have ANY preschoolers suspended is another speech.)

To tackle institutional and systemic racism, we have to be aware of every part of the system, including the silence of implicit bias that blinds us to the larger system and what needs to be disrupted and dismantled.

Let’s watch a movie…

Being self-aware is important. Knowing your individual responsibility to challenge racism and the system that enables it is part of the profound trust that is placed in each and every educator.

But institutional racism will not be eradicated by individuals with good hearts. My good heart and my good intentions will not get my students the programs, staff, class size, technology, school nurses they deserve. Only collective action will make a dent in that.

And that action is the work of my union and parents and advocates and the faith community (and the agnostic and atheist community, too) so sorry if I left anyone out… it’s all of us. You and me and all of us.

You might have noticed a little thing going on with my teachers and how good we all look in Red.

Red4Ed is what we’re calling this movement of teachers and support staff and even administrators and parents who are standing up all over this country and saying enough is enough.

This is happening in our most education-funding-starved places: West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and now Denver, Los Angeles and Oakland.

Look at the students served in these places. Overwhelmingly you’ll see black and brown faces. You’ll see hijabs and hear accents and what a coincidence that as students of color are arriving in greater numbers, politicians entrusted with their education have been starving schools of basic resources.

In every one of these job actions, educators have marched for the pay that professionals deserve, but when politicians tried to settle on a nice raise – the teachers and support staff holding picket signs made it clear that wasn’t enough. They stayed out until the needs of their students were taken seriously. Class size, a school nurse, counselors, technology – this time, technology that works (yeah, it’s a thing.)

We have to find ways – individually and collectively – to gather our power and see institutional racism as our core to our work; as core to our mission. By the way, it’s our work whether or not we teach in schools with racial diversity.

Black History Month is not a month for Black students to learn about their history. It’s a month where all students learn about American history – that most likely is not found in the official textbook.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is not an African American hero. He’s an American hero. He died for the ideals of a country that treated him like a second-class citizen.

Action is everywhere; and not without controversy. I’ve had more than one conversation with a colleague, confused why it’s not appropriate to say: All Lives Matter.

We had a very good talk. I don’t shut down anyone who asks a question – even if it’s rhetorical. It’s an opportunity. And I said: Of course, ALL lives matter! But the point of the movement is that All lives don’t have equal protection.

Innocent Black lives have been lost because out of all proportion, police officers have used deadly force against unarmed Black people.

I asked my white colleague, whom I know has adult sons: Did you ever have a talk with your boys that if they were ever pulled over by police that their lives were in danger. That depending on how they spoke; where they put their hands; reaching into the glove compartment or a pocket to take out a wallet;… might cost them their lives?

She looked at me and said, “Well of course not. My kids weren’t the kind of kids to get in trouble.”

Our conversation continued. She loves our NEA vice president, Becky Pringle, an African American middle school science teacher from Pennsylvania.

I challenged her: Talk to Becky and ask her if she gave “the talk” to her son – a fine young black man who wasn’t the kind of kid to get in trouble. My Becky will tell you that as a proud, rabble rouser who would stand up in a school board meeting and look the superintendent and let him know she wasn’t going anywhere until she got what she needed. She is a tough cookie who taught her children to walk proud.

And she and her husband had the “when you get pulled over” talk. And they told their son, “We want you home alive.”

And so, we say: Black Lives Matter… because All Lives have not Mattered. Racism takes black and brown lives. Explicit racism foments hate and aggression. But implicit bias grows unreasonable fear and suspicion, and people act unreasonably on their fear and suspicion.

We have to seek the truth. But information is just the step to action. You stop at information and you have done nothing. We must Act on what we know.

Let’s watch another movie.

I’ve heard it many times: We have laws that prohibit racial discrimination. We’re done here.

It’s against the law to have segregated schools; to tell black and brown kids they can’t take a calculus class; it’s against the law to expel a student because you don’t like his race or she wears a hijab. People have all the protection they need.

The hell they do. When you have rigged the system to intentionally design schools that are even more segregated through privatized charters than they were before 1955 and Brown;

when you can’t tell a black student she’s not allowed to take calculus, but there is no calculus class offered in her school;

when you have no-tolerance policies for broken rules that you apply one way for black and brown students and another way for white students…

then you have institutionalized racism in an elegantly invisible way that you can make appear normal.

And the only way to cure institutional racism is the systematic intentional fair treatment of students of all races. Institutional racism will resist change at all costs. We must not be moved in our mission. We must act against all odds.


We must act to be informed. If you don’t know the history and intentionality of institutional racism, you will not feel moved to Act.

We must act to accept the truth of what we learn. We can’t be uncomfortable. If you’re uncomfortable facing the reality of racism as the root cause of so much of the injustice we have in our country; if you believe the cause is poverty, you will not Act in a way that attacks the root of the problem.

You’ll focus on acts of charity – instead of acts of justice. An Act of racial justice is one that seeks to change the system that made the act of injustice seem normal. We challenge it. We expose it. And we change it so that it is not repeated.

And we must act to join forces. 3 million of my members cannot do this alone. Educators, Parents, Unions, Civil Rights Advocates, Politicians, Grandmas and Grandpas, and all of us must understand the immense work ahead, know that powerful people will try to stop us and get the world to think WE’RE not normal. But we must not take our eyes off the prize. There’s too much at stake.

The consequences of racism in America have been with us for centuries. It’s been the air we breathe since our colonial leaders agreed amongst themselves in civilized debates to allow men, women and children to be treated as less than human.

Since enslaved people were unloaded from African slave ships;

since we dishonorably broke treaties and stole the lands of our first people as if promises to American Indians were as expendable as the people themselves.

Since we claimed to value families as a moral American principle, yet we brought Chinese workers over as cheap labor to build our railroads but refused to let them bring their wives and children.

Since we separated mother from child at the border;

Since we lost Latino babies in our insane, unnavigable machine of Homeland Security;

Since our government has intentionally caused untold trauma to children seeking asylum today.

If you do not feel a sense of urgency right here. Right now. Today… shame on you.

As for me and my union, our mission is clear: We will use our power as educators to challenge the institutional racism that is based on a culture of white naturally deserving more and black and brown naturally deserving less. Based on a competitive culture that believes if you want winners there have to be losers. Someone has to be the winner; someone has to be the loser. We just can’t afford the word “all”.

Our mission is to create a new normal: A love of all our children. A love of their common humanity. A love of all their rich diversity where all of us learn a richer history;

Our mission is that we all learn different traditions; we all discover and argue and experiment and fail and decide and do and become friends. We all truly become a community where we don’t try to homogenize and standardize.

Our mission is eradicate the cancer of institutional racism and build a system where there is a place 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.

It’s been an honor to be here today. Gracias por este honor.

4 Responses to “We need to be disruptors of institutional racism in our schools”

  1. Dr. Eugene D. Betit

    Tremendous remarks! Good to know that all those teachers’ strikes were not accidental (as a two-year HS teacher of German and Russian). I fervently hope there are more to come.

    You may want to check out my recent book, Collective Amnesia: American Apartheid, African Americans’ 400 Years in North America, 1619-2019, which includes in 502 pages what most US history books omit.

  2. Jim Mordecai

    Well said Lily.

    Please consider also public schools are government schools and most teachers in America teach in schools that are segregated by class and race. This is in face of the second Brown decision of 1955 that followed up the 1954 decision that “separate was not equal” by telling school boards and local government that it was there duty to the U.S. Constitution to pass government regulations that promoted public school integration. School boards promote choice and ignore whether parent choice increase or decrease segregation.

    What is not paid enough attention to is the apartheid of U.S. government schools is built on U.S. government housing policies and housing loans that are backed by the U.S. government that promote segregation. This long history of government housing segregation has has been referred to as “redlining”, or government and government agencies such as FHA, backing segregated housing by drawing red line on housing map to show were government will not back loans unless segregation is promoted. Long history of government supported segregation of yesterday is though of as the norm called homeowner choice.

    White supremacy should be challenged, but it will not be enough unless America’s segregated housing/schooling apartheid is also addressed.

    “disparity between white and black families who own homes is stark. Seventy-three percent of white families own a home compared with just 45 percent of black families.53

    53 Center for American Progress, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/reports/2018/02/21/447051/systematic-inequality/

  3. Joshua

    I strongly agree with all of these remarks. It is crucial that we understand that the problem is implicit racism, meaning that we are not aware of our own racist tendencies. I also firmly believe that acknowledging our own racism is one of the most important steps in going forward, which in of itself is problematic today. Many people believe that we are a post racial society where racism is behind us and that if racism exists, it is because of the actions of a few individuals which are not reflective of our society. This is far from the truth, and this mindset is also very dangerous because our denial allows racism to foster and become both normalized and institutionalized.

    Again, this is something that we as a collective nation must acknowledge. However, something that I have been reflecting on is the challenge to acknowledge our implicit racism. It seems that many times when we call out on racism, we get a bunch of pushback and it actually makes the situation worse. For example, the term “racist” carries a lot of stigmatization today. When the term is used, people get more defensive and then adamantly refuse to acknowledge that they hold any implicit racism. Thus, any hope on educating these people either becomes a lost cause or a much harder challenge.

    It would seem that a possible way to combat this problem is to somehow emphasize that it is ok to admit to having internal racist tendencies. We must acknowledge our racist tendencies if we are to solve the problem. However, this may also make it seem as if we are becoming tolerant of racism. I guess what I want to emphasize is how we should do this in an efficient and effective way. We should most definitely not be tolerant of racism. However, it would not be effective for us, if calling out against these people end up having them become defensive to the point of not listening to us at all. So my perspective on the topic, is that the challenge is for us to somehow educate these people on their implicit racist tendencies in a way that does not make us appear as if we are accusing them of something. However, at the same time, we should also not appear as if we are tolerating their behavior. Maybe this could be done through some combination of both of these tactics, and maybe it depends on each individual case for deciding what tactic to use. I do not have a clear answer. However, I think this is something important for us to consider if we want to both acknowledge and eradicate our implicit racist tendencies.

  4. Tonya L

    Lily. WOW. I think you, and the NEA, just became my superhero’s! I’m just beginning my journey on the road to becoming an educator, and I’m not sure I can fully express how powerful your words, and the NEA’s actions, have been to me.The massive organizational change you and your fellow NEA community have achieved, is just about one of the most impressive things I think I’ve ever heard of. 3M plus members strong – good people, who are motivated to collectively move forward in the same direction, all fighting the food fight for what is right, and FAIR. I cannot wait for my opportunity to jump into the fray, to become that disrupter, that agent of change.

    Incredibly powerful read; I thank you for understanding the importance of sharing it with us all!


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