It’s common to hear people say that education can combat racism, but is this statement accurate and if so, in what sense? The idea that racism is simply a matter of ignorance is arguably a dodge. As Victor Ray and Alan Aja pointed out in The Washington Post, “The highly educated designed America’s system of segregation and America’s prison system.”
Why? Because racism helped maintain a political and economic order from which those highly educated people benefited. Systemic inequality is a much more sweeping problem than individual bigotry.
If racism is not caused solely by a lack of education, is there anything education can do to combat racism? According to an article by Pirette McKamey in The Atlantic, anti-racist teachers go out of their way to engage with black students, to value their classroom contributions, and to critique their own approach to teaching. Rather than assuming that a struggling student is under-motivated or not prepared for class, they combat racism by trying to figure out why they’re not reaching that particular student.
The assumption that racism is caused by ignorance is essentially passive. It allows highly educated people to assume that they are not racist, even while contributing to systemic racism. Anti-racist education takes an active approach. It assumes that systemic racism is present and seeks ways to confront its destructive effects.
Of course, there’s a limit to how much education can do about systemic racism without deeper changes. For example, as long as education funding is tied to property taxes there will be deep inequalities between the education available in different communities. These inequalities will continue to drive other inequalities such as the percentage of students who go on to higher education and the types of jobs they pursue after graduation. Education can be used to combat racism, but in the end systemic racism is still the primary driving force behind racial injustice.