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A Counternarrative Autoethnography Exploring School Districts’ Role in Reproducing Racism: Willful Blindness to Racial Inequities


by Muhammad A. Khalifa & Felecia M. Briscoe — 2015

Background: Racialized suspension gaps are logically and empirically associated with racial achievement gaps and both gaps indicate the endurance of racism in American education. In recent U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Office of Civil Rights data, it was revealed that nationally, Black boys are four times more likely to be suspended than White boys. In some geographic areas and for certain offenses, some intersections of race, class, and gender are dozens of times more likely to be suspended for than others. Although most educational leaders and district-level official express disapproval of racism in schools, racialized gaps in achievement and discipline stubbornly persist.

Purpose/Objective: The purpose of this study was to examine how school district-level administrators react to investigations and indications of racism in in their school districts. It is relevant because in many school districts that have disciplinary and achievement gaps, the administrators ostensibly and publically express a hope to reduce or eliminate the racist trends. Yet, one administration after another, they seem unable to disrupt the racially oppressive discipline and achievement gaps. In this study, we examined administrators’ responses to our requests about their districts’ racialized disaggregated disciplinary data, and their responses to our sharing of our findings with them. We use counternarrative autoethnography to describe that school district administrators play a significant role in maintaining practices that reproduce racial oppression in schools.

Setting: This study was conducted in large urban school districts in Texas. The profiled districts were predominantly Latino; however one district was over 90% Latino and the other just slightly more than half with sizable White and Black student populations in some schools and areas.

Participants: As this is an autoethnography, we are the primary participants of this study; we interrogate our experiences with school district administrators in our investigations of racial disciplinary gaps.

Research Design: Our autoethnography is counternarrative, as it counters bureaucratic narratives of impartiality, colorblindness, and objectivity espoused by school districts. In addition to our own self-interviews, we base our counternarrative on the examination of 11 phone calls and 35 email exchanges with district administration, and on field-notes taken during seven site visits. These collective experiences and data sources informed our counternarratives, and led to our findings. Our research encompasses three phases. The initial phase was our attempt to obtain disciplinary data from various school districts in Texas. Only two school districts made the data accessible to us, despite being legally obligated to do so. For the second phase of our study we calculated risk ratios (Gregory, Skiba, & Noguera, 2010) from those two school districts to determine how many more times African Americans and Latinos are suspended than Whites in all of the schools of TXD1 and TXD2. The third phase was the district administrators’ reactions to our presentation of our findings in regards to their district schools with the most egregious disciplinary gaps. Based on the administrative responses to them, we thought that it was important to highlight our experiences through a counternarrative autoethnography.

Conclusions:From our qualitative data analysis we theorize three bureaucratic administrative responses contributed to the maintenance of racism in school—(1) the administrators discursive avoidance of issues of racial marginalization; (2) the tendency of bureaucratic systems to protect their own interests and ways of operating, even those ways of operating that are racist; and (3), the (perhaps inadvertent) protection of leadership practices that have resulted in such racial marginalization. These responses were enacted through four technical–rational/bureaucratic administrative practices: subversive, defensive, ambiguous, and negligent.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 8, 2015, p. 1-34
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17975, Date Accessed: 12/14/2017 9:52:22 AM

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About the Author
  • Muhammad Khalifa
    University of Minnesota
    E-mail Author
    MUHAMMAD A. KHALIFA, PhD, is Associate Professor of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Having worked as a public school teacher and administrator in Detroit, Dr. Khalifa’s research examines how urban school leaders enact culturally relevant leadership practices. Dr. Khalifa has recently published in Educational Administration Quarterly, Urban Education, the Urban Review, and Race, Ethnicity and Education. He is coeditor of the forthcoming books, Rage, Love & Transcendence in the Emergence of Social Justice Scholars: Becoming Critical in Diverse Social Spaces (SUNY Press), and Handbook on Urban School Leadership (Rowan and Littlefield). Dr. Khalifa has conducted leadership and equity training in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and North America. Recently, Dr. Khalifa has been helping U.S. urban schools perform online equity audits to address achievement and discipline gaps in school.
  • Felecia Briscoe
    University of Texas
    E-mail Author
    FELECIA BRISCOE is currently an associate professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio. Her research interests center around identity, power, and issues of equity. She has recently published two articles: “‘That Racism Thing:’ A Critical Discourse Analysis of a Conflict Over the Proposed Closure of a Black High School” published in Race, Ethnicity, & Education and “Anarchist, Neoliberal, & Democratic Decision-making: Deepening the Joy in Learning and Teaching” published in Educational Studies. She and Dr. Khalifa have just finished a book, Rage, Love & Transcendence in the Emergence of Social Justice Scholars: Becoming Critical in Diverse Social Spaces, which is under contract with SUNY Press.
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