"Could someone calmly describe the institutional racism is Seattle Public Schools? Whose actions are racist - and what exactly are they doing? Is it a policy issue? What policy is it? I'd be happy to read something if you could direct me to it."I'll try to respond to this because I think it's really important. There is a range of opinion here and there will be others with views very different from mine. Those views have equal merit. Since the request was specifically to do this "calmly", I know that I will disappoint a lot of people with the gentleness of my answer. I ask their forgiveness in advance. I also apologize for the incomplete nature of my answer. I believe that members of the dominant culture come to understand institutional racism as a voyage of discovery, so I'm not going to connect all of the dots for you. You need to connect them for yourself.
Institutional racism is a rather unfortunate turn of phrase. It's unfortunate because the word "racism" is incendiary. It instantly makes people uncomfortable, angry, and defensive. Not exactly the mood you want to set when you are asking people to reflect on things that they usually don't think about at all. I was asked to explain things "calmly", so I'll try not to use that word. I acknowledge that a lot of people think that this approach treats the topic too sympathetically, but I find less sympathetic approaches ineffective because they cause people to retreat into a defensive stance and refuse to positively engage. I'm looking for positive engagement here.
We're all familiar with direct personal racism, in both overt and subtle forms. Institutional racism isn't like that. It isn't personal. It isn't even really intentional. It is, in fact, the result of a lack of thoughtful intent. When raising awareness of it - which is the first step towards ending it - I find it more effective for people new to the idea to think of it as ethno-centrism.
I'll start with a story that illustrates the problem.
Imagine that, for security reasons, the back door at your workplace needs to be kept locked. Various people need to go out the door from time to time, so the back door key is kept on top of the molding over the door. Anyone needing to go out the back door just reaches up, takes the key, and uses it. This worked fine for the people who work there, until the business hired someone less that 5'6" tall who couldn't reach the molding at the top of the door. The people who decided to put the key on the top of the molding weren't trying to find a solution that didn't work for their shorter colleague, they just didn't think about the possibility that something within easy reach for them might not be within easy reach for everyone. They weren't being cruel, just a bit thoughtless. When the situation is brought to their attention, they move the key to a more accessible location, like a hook on the wall next to the door.
Institutional racism is like that. It's not so much thinking about how people are different as it is forgetting to think about how people are different.
Let's consider another situation.
My wife and I were talking about our favorite ethnic restaurants in Seattle and I said that one of mine was the Wedgwood Broiler. "The Wedgwood Broiler?" she said, "That's not an ethnic restaurant." "Yes it is," I answered, "They serve White people food like pork chops and apple sauce, turkey and stuffing, meatloaf and gravy, and macaroni and cheese. And you know it's good because every time I go there it's full of White people." My wife didn't see the Wedgwood Broiler as an ethnic restaurant because she didn't regard the mainstream American culture as one culture on an equal standing with other cultures. Instead, she regarded it as a sort of default or null state from which all other cultures were a deviation.
Now ask yourself - is that your view? It's not an accusation. It's not a question of innocence or guilt. In fact, it would be - in a way - "innocent" to have that view. Well, naive. We all, to some extent presume that other people generally do things the way that we and our family do them. We all, to some extent, presume that everyone else generally shares our social norms, our etiquette, and our values - at least until we are instructed otherwise. These are elements of our culture. They were acquired naturally and people tend to presume that they are reflective of human nature universally. Usually we learn otherwise when someone from another culture either gives or takes offense where none is meant. I'm sure you've had this sort of experience.
So, built on that foundation, we can now address the question of institutional racism in schools.
Let's start with something small. Seattle Public Schools serves turkey sausage in school breakfasts. Did you know that a lot of school all across the country serve pork sausage? Not a big deal, unless your faith prohibits eating pork. It isn't difficult for schools to switch to turkey sausage, and schools usually don't hesitate to make the change, but many of them just didn't think of it on their own. It crosses the line from a sort of "innocent" institutional racism to intentional overt racism when the institution refuses to respond after they have been advised that pork is not halal and puts some of their students in a conflicted situation.
Institutional racism is the codification and enforcement of one culture's norms on a group of multiple cultures. It generally isn't intended as cruel. It generally isn't even intentional. It's not done out of awareness of differences but out of a lack of awareness of differences.
What about ordinary policies?
Think of the expectations put on third grade students in a traditional American classroom: that they sit relatively still in a chair at a desk for hours on end without speaking to the other children around them. That they focus their attention for hours on end as the teacher directs. That they stop thinking about math when it is time to put the math books away and start thinking about reading when it is time to take the reading books out. That they raise their hand and wait to be called upon before they speak or rise from their seat. That they grant broad authority to the teacher and other adults in the school and follow their orders without question. That they get help on their schoolwork at home from their family. That they dress in accordance with the school dress code. That they adhere to narrow protocols when interacting with school staff. That they practice autonomy in some ways and obedience in others. That they arrive at school at a specific hour and leave at a specific hour. That their play at recess fall within narrow boundaries for physical contact.
These expectations may seem perfectly ordinary and easily tolerable to many of you. Trust me, however, that there are lots of cultures that would find these social norms alien, arbitrary, and even offensive. Children of those cultures often find these rules difficult to remember or follow. Compliance with these rules is out of reach for those third graders - just they couldn't reach a key resting on the top of the molding over the door. It's not surprising that students from those cultures would find themselves disproportionately subject to discipline for violating the school rules that codify these expectations.
There are more extreme cases.
Think of the various ways that students could respond to bullying. Different cultures have different ideas of what is an appropriate response. All but one of them is in violation of the student code of conduct. Think of all of the ways that offense can be unintentionally given or taken as dozens of cultures mix in our schools. Think of all of the ways that people could respond to that offense. Most of them are violations of the student code of conduct.
So if an identifiable group of students are having trouble complying with a policy or meeting an expectation, take a moment to consider if the policy or the expectation presumes a cultural perspective or a set of resources those students don't have. Take some time to look around and discover examples for yourself. Then you can expand it beyond racism to find elements of sexism, ablism, and classism as well. Consider the expectations put on students and families by schools and the district and ask yourself what presumptions are embedded in those expectations. What presumption of resources and culture are embedded in those expectations?
Again, I apologize to those who would prefer a blunter and less sympathetic explanation. I chose this path because I believe it most effective.