When We Talk About Race

In the policy arena, process is as important as product. The conversations, debates, and deliberative process are all indicative of the opinions, values and systems embedded in the policies that we create for ourselves and others.

This was the most evident last Thursday, March 22 at the Senate Education Committee hearing of Senate Bill 292 during a heated debate between Sen. J. Bouie (D- New Orleans) and Sen. C. Appel (R- Metairie).



OPEN believes in teachable moments, and this is a particularly poignant one. So: what did we learn here?

What We Observed

  • Sen. Appel becomes increasingly and visibly uncomfortable before and while Sen. Bouie presents his argument in support of Senate Bill 292. The bill calls for a moratorium on new charter schools until existing ones have undergone a performance audit.
  • Bouie uses the data featured in the Cowen Institute report on Opportunity Youth to support his argument, bringing up the fact that a significant number of youth educated in the charter school system who are now both out of work  and out of school are black.
  • Appel responds by yelling at Bouie and accusing him of calling “us” racist. Phrases include “ridiculous,” “disgusting,” and “I don’t care if they [the charter school students] are purple.
  • Appel responds that the problem is that New Orleans is not producing enough jobs for youth ages 16-24 to occupy, not systemic racism within the charter school system.


Our Takeaways

  • The former chairman of a Louisiana Senate Education Committee, a person with a significant degree of power, is unwilling to consider the intersection between race and education, or systems that create racial inequities, during a policy discussion.
  • Discussions of race are interpreted as personal attacks on either White people or those in positions of power or are accused of having no merit and are dismissed.
  • There is a desire to not see race and explain away disparities as not racist in origin or intent — instead attributing them to external factors such as economics or geographic location.
  • Violence (in this case violent communication) is used in an attempt to silence a discussion on racial disparities.


This is why our work is necessary.

Advocacy for black children is not about attacking white ones. We can no longer treat the pursuit of equity and racial justice as zero-sum games. We believe in centering black children’s needs and experiences in the education policy discussion, because even now, in 2018, we are witnessing not only persistent racial disparities throughout the life course but resistance to these topics even being brought up in the policymaking process.

Until this attitude changes, we will not have policy that addresses the needs of all. When we resist hard conversations for the people because of the fragility of the privileged, we’re reinforcing harmful power structures (and perpetuating their outcomes) instead of building new ones that affirm and support all human beings.


And for the record…

In New Orleans, 87% of Opportunity Youth (youth ages 16-24 disconnected from school and work) are black, while 7% are white. Compare this figure to the overall city demographics, which show that 64% of youth are black and 26% are white. 54% of opportunity youth are male (despite being the minority of overall 16-24-year-olds), 46% live below poverty and have very little access to income or other quality-of-life supports such as health insurance. 21% of female opportunity youth have children of their own.

Now, we may not be able to argue causation between charter schools in New Orleans and these outcomes. But prepared kids aren’t disconnected. And as schools are the most consistent institution in the lives of children and youth, we must be especially concerned with how these institutions are shaping their life trajectories. More importantly, the clear correlations between racial demographics and life outcomes deserve intentional and serious consideration from policymakers — not willful denial of reality.


What You Should Know

Your experience is data and you can tell your community’s story with its support. The issues disproportionately affecting Black communities in New Orleans are real and the Cowen Institute report referenced by Sen. Bouie highlights some of that.

The system is designed to maintain itself. Remember that the status quo works for the powerful. Be prepared for a fight when shifting the distribution of power, privilege and access.

Keep beating the drum of justice until you are heard and change happens. Don’t be intimidated or dismissed by disrespect, fear or scare tactics.

Another Teachable Moment: The previous version of this post included a quote popularly misattributed to Voltaire, a 17th-century French philosopher and free speech advocate with admirable ideas but very little impact on our lives today. Turns out it’s actually from a pretty gross trend that’s actually in our midst today — an “alt-right” facist writer who is part of a group that would seek to reject and discredit everything we’re trying to talk about here. We regret the error and will be more vigilant in the future, but you can’t deny it’s an interesting contrast — and one that’s redoubled our determination to not shy away from the hard conversations. What do you think?