SPEAK UP: Racial (In)Justice in Education

Let’s Talk About Race

Lily Eskelsen García, a longtime teacher and president of the National Education Association, wants educators to lead in the often-uncomfortable conversation about racial justice in education. Without that dialogue, she says, we help perpetuate a system purposely designed to advantage some and to hold others in an inferior place, sorted by the color of their skin. The video clips below are excerpts from remarks she delivered at the 2019 South by Southwest conference. You can view her speech in its entirety here.

Being Informed Is Not Enough


Educators strive every day — online, offline, in their classrooms and in their communities – to ensure all students have access to a great public school. We do so without regard for the color of students’ skin, the language they speak, their family income, their religion or their sexual orientation.

Yet too often, the public education system fails to serve all students equitably and adequately. We see the disparities in which schools have the least experienced teachers, which schools lack access to advanced courses, which schools have up-to-date facilities, computers, books and enrichment programs, and which schools have discipline policies that push students out.

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To ensure all students have the opportunity to reach their fullest potential as our schools become more ethnically and racially diverse than ever before, educators are leading the charge.

Join the NEA Ed Justice League, a national network of education activists. Be a part of a growing community of activists advancing racial and social justice policies in public education.

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Students Suffer From Our Silence


Harmful racial discourse practices are found not just in mainstream media, but more broadly throughout our society. They are used by public officials, by lawyers and judges, by cultural and entertainment figures, by others with power and influence over public perception and behavior, and, yes, by educators.

What are these practices and what are the specific negative effects they have on discussions about race?

When these harmful racial discourse practices succeed, they stifle our understanding of systemic racism. They reinforce the common misconception that racism is simply a problem of rare, isolated, individual attitudes and actions, and most damagingly, that as a significant barrier to the success of people of color, racism no longer exists.

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Taken together, these harmful discourse practices often promote “colorblindness,” while simultaneously promoting so-called “race-neutral” policies and practices that reinforce the power of white anxiety and fear in policymaking and decision-making.

Here are ways you can help overcome these harmful discourse practices.

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Students Are Talking About Race


Luke Michener and Terry Jess are both white, male educators who teach at Bellevue High School in Washington state. They feel they have little to add to conversations about race with students and colleagues of color that those students and colleagues don’t already know themselves, based upon their own experiences in the classroom, and, more broadly, living in the United States.

On the other hand, Terry and Luke feel they do have a lot to offer other white educators who are committed to racial equity in education, but may not know where to begin, how to plug in with existing efforts, or how to best participate in sometimes difficult discussions about race in their own schools.

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“Starting off small is perfectly fine. That’s where we all start,” says Terry. “One small act of kindness or small action to stand up for a student or a colleague. But don’t let yourself get comfortable in that. Always push yourself to be doing more. Because I guarantee there is no lack of work to be done.”

Terry now has more than 80 short videos on his YouTube channel, addressing topics that range from “What’s on your classroom wall?” to “Why am I wearing #blacklivesmatter every day?” to “Charlottesville in the classroom.”

The collection includes a 10-part series co-hosted by Terry and Luke titled “Primer for anti-racist white educators.” In the videos, which are between three and eight minutes long, Terry and Luke walk through focused topics such as “Listen,” “Learn,” “Space,” “Accountability” and “Act.”

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Perpetuating Institutional Racism


Racial justice is the systematic fair treatment of people of all races, resulting in equitable opportunities and outcomes for all. Racial justice — or racial equity — goes beyond “anti-racism.” It is not just the absence of discrimination and inequities, but also the presence of deliberate systems and supports to achieve and sustain racial equity through proactive and preventative measures.

Racial dynamics, disparities and divisions permeate our society, communities, schools and classrooms. Systemic racism is so deeply rooted in our history, culture and institutions that there’s no escaping it. Visible or not, its impacts are ever-present.

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Yet, discussions of racism are typically not part of our curriculum — unless we’re teaching social sciences or literature, or highlighting a particular holiday or hero. And even then, the race content may often be lacking or lackluster.

Adding to this context is the fact that a majority of our public school students are students of color while only 18 percent of our teachers are teachers of color. This presents different challenges for white teachers and teachers of color when approaching issues of race.

“Racial Justice in Education: Resource Guide” includes tools and resources for talking about race, racial equity assessments, strategic planning, taking action and more.

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Black Students Suspended at Higher Rate


Restorative practices are increasingly being applied in individual schools and school districts to address youth behavior, rule violations, and to improve school climate and culture. They can improve relationships between students, between students and educators, and even between educators, whose behavior often serves as a role model for students.

Restorative practices allow individuals who may have committed harm to take full responsibility for their behavior by addressing the individual(s) affected by the behavior. Taking responsibility requires understanding how the behavior affected others, acknowledging that the behavior was harmful to others, taking action to repair the harm, and making changes necessary to avoid such behavior in the future.

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Restorative practices work when they are implemented schoolwide and integrated into the fabric of the school community.

View the full guide for educators: Restorative Practices: Fostering Healthy Relationships & Promoting Positive Discipline in Schools

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Just Ask The Students


Resources, resources and more resources.

Help facilitate conversations about race, including classroom appropriate lesson plans, guides on how to have tough conversations with peers and students, and more.

See how cities like Milwaukee, Rochester, and Seattle have passed community and union resolutions — and then mobilized to support Black Lives Matter at School.

And take a look at art, video and ideas you can use to engage classrooms and communities to support racial and social justice.

Find it all here >

Take Action

Building Power in Our Communities

Ready to get active and be the superhero our students deserve in the fight for racial, social and economic justice in public education? Then join the NEA EdJustice League!

Join Us



Resource Guide

Download the NEA resource guide: "Racial Justice in Education." Includes tools & resources for talking about race, racial equity assessments, strategic planning, taking action and more.

Download PDF

Restorative Justice

Download the NEA guide for educators: "Restorative Practices -- Fostering Healthy Relationships & Promoting Positive Discipline in Schools."

Download PDF

Student Poets Playlist

Now is a good time to listen to young people as they speak out on what they want the future to hold.

Listen to the Poets