Dissecting Institutional Racism : Restoring Educational Justice

By Lasha Pierce, MD


Institutional racism occurs throughout society and our schools. It can happen at the classroom, administrative and school district levels. Restorative education is a tool to identify, analyze and offer solutions to systemic inequities in education and in the broader society.

  • African American pre-schoolers are far more likely to be suspended than white children.
  • African American children make 18 percent of the pre-school population but represent
    almost half of all out-of-school suspensions.
  • In grades K-12, African American students are more likely to be suspended, expelled,referred to police, restrained, placed in seclusion.
  • African American juveniles are more likely to be charged as adults
  • “Black-sounding” names are less likely to be hired
  • Racial gaps exist in pay, home ownership (redlining), net worth, traffic stops, arrests and
    incarceration, jury selection, sentencing, and the death penalty.

The “School to Prison Pipeline” refers to the over-aggressive discipline of African American students resulting in a higher likelihood of interaction with the criminal justice system and incarceration over their lifespan.

How then do we begin to solve the problem? What factors lend themselves to scrutiny and criticism? At the classroom level we can make the following observations and recommendations:

  1. Look at who is considered to be gifted and talented. Who is typically awarded advanced placement status? Who is most often referred to special education?

Remedy: Have all students tested for advanced placement and all students placed in at least some advanced courses regardless of testing results

2. Those in positions of power and authority construct discourses that are often academically and emotionally debilitating to the ‘racial other’. Such construction and related action is informed by a white, race-privileged position.

Remedy: Formally examine the role of racism and white privilege within the curriculum for students and teacher training.Teachers in their role as educators play an integral part in preparing students for their role as citizens. As such, teachers’ conceptions of democracy as it relates to notions of citizenship (which are intricately linked to discourses of race and belongingness), need to be examined.

3. American born African youth are taught that in order to succeed in America they must embrace the very system that continues to oppress millions of their fellow men and women from stolen coast to stolen coast. The public “educational” system’s history books are riddled with unsavory and oppressive historical figures. It is a direct affront to force any student of color — or any decent human being! — to endure studying these characters in a positive light, as if they should be exalted.

Remedy: All history must be examined critically in the classroom and dissected thru several vantage points. Alternative textbooks and materials that do not glorify the genocide of non-white peoples must be used in order to accurately portray historical events.

4. The majority of school teachers are white women and do not reflect the demographic makeup of the national student body and are ill-equipped to meet the specific needs of African American students. There needs to be a strategy around making teaching a viable and attractive career for adults in the African American community.
Remedy: Teacher training and credential programs must actively recruit African American candidates, as well as incorporate Restorative Education theory into teacher training curriculum for all teachers. Also focusing on the development of Responsive and Restorative classrooms, reforming discipline policies and identifying race privilege.

At the administrative level, we can examine: Who is disproportionately expelled and suspended for minor infractions Remedy 1: Create task forces to examine discipline policy’s and create ways to reverse the overly aggressive responses to African American students. Remedy 2: Eliminate zero tolerance policies.

Hiring practices : Incorporate blinded applications (numbers instead of names) and add experiential qualifications to job descriptions instead of mere academic degrees. Expectations of training should include social justice and restorative education training and mastery of the responsive classroom.

3) High-stakes testing increases the number of dropouts. Eliminate high states testing and focus on mastery. Tracking. One result of high-stakes testing is to “track” (or, group) students into “ability groups.” In other words, once a student does poorly on a high-stakes, standardized test, those test scores are then used to determine which groups they’ll be placed in for future classes. Tracking students into lower-level classes inevitably influence teacher expectations about those students, which in turn, affects how students perform. Eliminate tracking.

Also, special education referrals should be tracked and held to a minimum.
School district level:

  1. Change the construction of whiteness as an unmarked narrative, invisible category, and white privilege as unearned and un-meritocratic.
  2. Reverse the Underfunding Majority Black and Brown Schools. (limits resources such as books/computers/teachers, limited library access, limited janitorial staff, no enrichment courses, poor grounds upkeep, limited funds for heating/air conditioning)

The Williams Case in California (the examples listed above are based on this case). In 2000, nearly 100 plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit in Eliezer Williams, et al., vs. the State of California, et al. (Williams) in San Francisco County Superior Court. The plaintiffs were San Francisco County students, who sued the State of California and state education agencies, including the California Department of Education (CDE), claiming that the agencies failed to provide then — and all K-12 public school students — with equal access to instructional materials, safe and decent school facilities, and qualified teachers. The case was settled in 2004. The result was that the state of California allocated $138 million in additional funding in order to bring these schools up to the standards of their wealthier (and whiter) counterparts.
Re-thinking funding of schools to eliminate the unequal distribution of resources within the state.
Remedy: Restructure funding away from property tax base.

3. School readiness (what social health needs to be in place for that to be more likely?) Remedy: Create strategies for equal access to quality early childhood education, quality after school programming and quality summer programs for under-resourced students.

Reversing the neglectful and abusive policies that created academic trauma for many African American students is a great start in shaping the narrative around the causes of the achievement gap as well as creating strategies to repair past harms.

Lasha Pierce MD



Academy For Restorative Education (AFRE)

We aid in the development and support of specific, proven and meaningful educational models to close the academic and economic achievement gaps in our country.