For the Future of Children: Creating a Conversation about Race

Professor Carol Lee advocates more dialogue on race to promote education reform.

by Lisa Stein
For the first time ever in U.S. history, an African American has become the presidential nominee for a major political party. While Senator Barack Obama's hard-fought campaign for the Democratic nomination reflected progress in our country's attitudes toward race, it also pointed to remnants of long-held racism in various, often furtive attacks as well as misguided observations.

Professor Carol Lee, an expert on culture in education, has worked for decades as a leader in African-centered schooling
Professor Carol Lee, an expert on culture in education, has worked for decades as a leader in African-centered schooling.
Photo by Jon Lowenstein

In a speech given in Philadelphia last March, Obama addressed head-on some painful realities about race relations in the United States with an honesty not often heard in mainstream politics. "Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now," he asserted. Clearly, Obama's groundbreaking presidential bid has already spurred national discussions about race, but the extent to which they will continue and their outcomes remain as unclear as the election results in November.

As part of Inquiry's look at the future of children in this election year, we consider how Obama's nomination will affect the education of our nation's youngest citizens. Are they more likely to grow up in a color-blind society? Will conversations about race and diversity become easier? How might education play a productive role in these conversations?

Carol Lee, SESP professor of learning sciences and African American studies, has worked for decades to develop African-centered education as a way to reach out to African American youth, especially those from low-income families. In 1998 Lee co-founded the Betty Shabazz International Charter School on Chicago's South Side that grew out of the New Concept School, which she co-founded in 1974; DuSable Leadership Academy and Barbara A. Sizemore Academy opened in 2006. For her work she has received numerous awards; most recently she was elected a member of the National Academy of Education and president-elect of the American Educational Research Association..

Change on the horizon
Lee sees Obama's nomination as "evidence of a change that is in the process of evolving. Clearly there's an opening. It's something I never imagined would happen in my lifetime. But I am very hopeful. So many of Obama's supporters are young people, which shows that things are changing and it is very much a generational shift. It will mean a lot to African American youth and other youth of color to see that this is a possibility. They are very excited."

One such young woman is Tabitha Bentley, a SESP junior who formed a group for minority students called Promote 360. She found Obama's speech on race moving and hopes it signals the start of a larger national dialogue. "People need to be educated about race — it's been a taboo subject," she remarks. "As a society we've shied away from talking about it, thinking we've gone color-blind, but in reality the characteristics and aspects of race are still there — they're just being overlooked."

Promote 360 works to promote the social, academic and professional development of minority students at SESP. So far Promote 360 has provided mentoring to Chicago and Evanston students; occasions for undergrads to network with faculty members; information about internships, scholarships, and research; and support and advocacy for its members.

Last May Promote 360 invited students from two Chicago-area middle schools to Northwestern for activities designed to encourage them to succeed in school and eventually go to college. Students toured the campus and talked with SESP students, who shared their own stories.

Lee says that in addition to being a role model for young people such as Bentley, Obama seems to have the ability to unite people from disparate perspectives to solve such big societal problems as the achievement gap between white and minority kids, racial discrimination and high unemployment among young people of color. "I personally know him. I've watched him in the Senate. My experience of him is someone who can build relationships. He thinks about the complexity of the problem of race in this country and knows that you have to bring all the relevant players to the table to work out something everybody can live with."

Agenda for education
Whichever candidate wins in November will have his work cut out for him. First and foremost, Lee would like to see work to establish more equitable distribution of funding for public schools, the effects of which could impact other barriers predicted by race. She notes that many U.S. schools, especially those in the North, remain segregated more than 50 years after the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, in large part because of residential segregation. Lee believes that in order to achieve a more equitable society, the country will likely have to move away from using the local tax base as the primary foundation for funding. Because this is a decision made by states, influencing this at the federal level will face complex political challenges.

How can we expect equitable outcomes, Lee asks, when per capita spending on students in Chicago is around $7,000 while schools in the northern suburbs spend $14,000 on each child? Such discrepancies undermine the constitutional promise of equal citizenship under the law, she says. "There are lots of structural issues having to do with the quality of education available, the quality of housing options, the quality of health care and the kinds of resources that are available to working families. As long as we have these kinds of life circumstances that are so strongly correlated with race, we are going to have problems," she states.

Also needed, Lee says, is an explicit, national focus on strengthening the teaching force. "Teachers are the most important link in educational outcomes. You can't learn how to teach after four or five years of university education. There has to be some extended kind of supervision or internship with master teachers who have a proven record of success, just like medicine."

Crucial dialogue on race
In order to encourage the dialogue that would have to precede such widespread educational reform, Lee would like to see discussions about race in schools — including the history of race relations and current issues — and better curricula that highlight the diversity of American achievements throughout history.

Promote 360, the SESP service organization to support minority students, brought to campus Chicago-area sixth graders to encourage their ambitions toward college.
Promote 360, the SESP service organization to support minority students, brought to campus Chicago-area sixth graders to encourage their ambitions toward college.
Photo by Andrew Campbell

"We need a civic debate about race, starting with the question 'What is race?' and that examines how the very construct of race reifies it, so that we have to deal with absurd categories such as Black, Hispanic, Hispanic non-white. What do they mean? There are no opportunities to talk about race. You can't make families talk about it; you can't make churches talk about it. But you can require it in schools as part of the public good." State assessments need to be developed, Lee adds, to support the implementation of these kinds of standards.

Lee points to the charter schools she co-founded as following an educational model that makes her optimistic. "The success of our three charter schools gives me great hope about the future life opportunities for these young people. In Chicago, students in charter schools outperform their peers in neighborhood schools." She adds that charter schools are also able to experiment with new pedagogies and curricula, can delve into the dilemma of race in the curriculum, and can focus on socialization that helps young people realize that they aren't limited by societal stereotypes.

The schools help students navigate today's environment of more discreet, but no less destructive, racism. "I would say that young people today face a more challenging set of race-related problems precisely because the kinds of social networks available in the past are not as prevalent today, because the presentation of racism is much more subtle, and the consequences of low academic achievement are greater than ever."
By Lisa Stein