Racism or Something Else?

It’s no secret that Emily has trouble with math. When “No Child Left Behind” came along, it brought with it the CRCT – a test created to determine whether or not a child met the academic standards to leave elementary school after 5th grade and then to leave middle school after 8th grade. Emily failed the math portion of the 5th grade exam by ONE POINT. She took the remedial summer course, retook the exam, and passed. In 8th grade, Emily failed the math portion of the CRCT again. She retook the test and moved on to 9th grade.

This year, Emily took several Georgia High School Graduation Tests in the Spring. She passed all of them EXCEPT the math test. We learned from the graduation coach and counselor that both the State of Georgia and our county would be offering remediation courses and another opportunity to take the test for a better score. Emily was hoping to get into the state course that is only two weeks long, four hours a day. But we were warned that she probably would not get in. Sure enough, no notice of acceptance arrived. Instead, Emily would take the county course. It was just two hours of math a day, but the course dragged on for six weeks and conflicted with the dates of her favorite camp, not to mention every morning swim team practice.

We showed up at the location for the county course on day one. Emily was tearful. “This was not the summer I expected,” she said. She didn’t know any of the other 250 students, and she was one of only three white students present. I could see that she felt isolated and out of place.

When I arrived to pick her up, Emily called me into the school. She was elated. The list of students accepted into the state course had arrived and she was on it! I reinstated her week at camp, and she returned to morning swim practice.

Today, I accompanied Emily to her first day of the state-sponsored math course. As we entered the cafeteria where the estimated 400 students waited for further instruction, I was struck again by the sea of brown faces. I finally identified one white girl among them. As I pulled out of the parking lot, Emily texted, “This is awkward.” I knew what she meant, but I wasn’t sure how to respond.

Why were there so many African-American students taking the math remediation course and so few white ones? I don’t believe for a minute that race determines intelligence. Emily is smart, but she has diagnosed learning disabilities that make acquisition of certain kinds of knowledge more difficult. As one of her tutors said, “Emily needs lots of practice to retain the concepts.” Could it be that more African-Americans have learning disabilities? I find that unlikely as well.

Do white students who fail the test have other resources for learning the material? Do they hire tutors or take classes that have a cost? (The state and county courses are provided by teachers free-of-charge.) Is it matter of economic disparity between the races? I don’t know the answer, but this would be my best guess given historic segregation and inequality between the races in the South.

So, is this racism or something else? Unless there is a safety issue, we do not keep our children from experiencing what it feels like to be a minority in any number of social contexts: school, church, camps, sports teams, etc. For many years, we were members of a largely LGBT congregation. We look for activities that incorporate diversity and we don’t shy away from what feels uncomfortable – feeding the homeless, playing games with the elderly, building homes with the poor… It never occurred to me or to John to keep Emily away from this math course. Plus, we know that she is resilient. Emily works through “awkward” and makes peace with it. That is one of the reasons she is so good at service work.

Still, it concerns me that so many of the students in need of remediation are students of color. Why did this happen? Who is to blame? How do we fix it?

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