Members Only | November 12, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

In the controversy over ‘race’ in public education, journalists can’t cover the story properly by amplifying white voices only

That Black people are invisible from the public education debate shows just how intellectually impoverished the conversation is. 

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Editor’s note: I asked if you’d like to have commentary from the rest of the Editorial Board sent to your inbox as it becomes ready. Many wrote back to say yes. I’m going to start doing that, but if you do not want more than one email per day — that’s the one with my commentary — please reply to this message and tell me. Meanwhile, here’s Magdi! –JS

Over the past year, Republicans have declared a war on how race and racism are addressed in public schools. This enmity was forefront in the gubernatorial election in Virginia, as well as battles over school boards across the country. In the past few months, at least seven states have banned so-called “critical race theory” from curricula. Over a dozen more are moving similar bans through state legislatures. 

It would be naïve to expect more from the Republican Party. It requires an ongoing and bloody culture war to win. But there is another party with a role to play, who might be receptive to correction: the media. 


This rendering of Black Americans as invisible is, perhaps, an argument for teaching more about racism in society, not less.


Overall, the media’s coverage of the battle over education has been, let us say, “deeply problematic.” Reporting on the issue has overwhelmingly featured white parents describing the discomfort their children felt in discussions about racism. 

Apparently, no one has thought it relevant to consider the experiences of Black children. This is regrettable as it’s impossible to cover a story about race in education while amplifying exclusively white voices.  

How would the coverage change if the media approached the topic with an eye to informing citizens? To answer that question, consider just a few relevant data points. 

First, Black kids experience racism before they enter school.

Research has shown that Black children are aware of racism usually before age five. Black kindergarteners are far more cognizant of their own race than their white counterparts. They are also keenly aware of racism, though they can’t always name the experience. 

Black children’s awareness of racism is not illusory. It is based on empirically demonstrated lived experiences that are shaped by interactions with peers and teachers. White teachers are more likely to direct Black kids to special education and less likely to recommend them to gifted classes, even when their performance is at the same level as their white peers. Punishments for similar behaviors are more severe, resulting in Black children being systematically humiliated, in addition to being more frequently detained and suspended.


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As they age through the school system, Black children report feeling more and more isolated. It’s not in their imagination. Even Black 5-year-olds are more likely to be described by their white teachers as angry or threatening than their white classmates. White teachers are more likely to perceive Black children as older than they are, which contributes to teachers responding to them in age-inappropriate ways. White children get comfort. Black children get punishment.

And I’ve only talked about preschool and kindergarten

Black children are often unfairly disadvantaged by their dialect and linguistic discrimination. When children enter primary school, they begin the process of learning to read. This requires mapping alphabetic visual symbols onto the sounds we use when we speak. 

Many Black children are speakers of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), a dialect of our language that is just as rich and systematic as any other. However, because this dialect differs from the standard dialect, Black children who speak AAVE are told that they have a “home language” and a “school language.” 

The former has no place in the classroom and the distinction between “home” and “school” inevitably plays into linguistic stereotypes of AAVE as somehow inferior or sloppy. White children are rarely told the dialect they speak is not befitting of a school environment, even when their dialects also differ from the standard. 

Further, Black students who speak AAVE are given little help in making the bridge from their dialect to the “standard” demanded of them. The systematic differences in their dialect are not noted; these differences are more commonly just characterized as “wrong.” Consider how terribly confusing that must be for a 6-year-old child. 

At this point, we’ve just talked about play and reading.


Despite the repeated falsehoods on the right, it is extremely rare for a curriculum to devote considerable attention to racism as a systemic and ever-present problem. Rather, the opposite is usually taught: that racism and racists are far, far away and that children are color-blind.


Despite the repeated falsehoods on the right, it is extremely rare for a curriculum to devote considerable attention to racism as a systemic and ever-present problem. Rather, the opposite is usually taught: that racism and racists are far, far away and that children are color-blind.

Combine such lessons — no racists here! — with Black children’s empirically demonstrated experiences of racism and it’s hard to imagine a more comprehensive and vicious form of gaslighting

It is unsurprising many Black children develop chronic stress as a result of overt and covert racism. This chronic stress, in turn, has not just been linked to social, emotional and academic outcomes, but also to physical health. Black children experience elevated levels of cortisol throughout the school day, a physiological state that not only leaves children exhausted, but also impedes their ability to work.  

Discrimination results in the prevalence of “stereotype threat” among Black children, adolescents and college students, such that if attention is brought to their race by a white educator, their performance on a task will decrease. Racism — from childhood to adulthood — is and will be a constant assault on both the body and mind.

The fact that Black people are so invisible from our public framing of the education debate shows just how intellectually impoverished the conversation is. They exist primarily as objects of discussion in the imagination of white Americans. A subject to debate, not people to listen to. This rendering of Black Americans as invisible is, perhaps, an argument for teaching more about racism in society, not less. 

The GOP is waging a race war. We shouldn’t expect them to care about Black kids. We should, however, demand that the rest of us place Black children within the scope of our conversation about education. 


Magdi Semrau writes about the politics of language, science and medicine for the Editorial Board. She has researched child language development and published in the New York Academy of Sciences. Born and raised in Alaska, she can be found @magi_jay.

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