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Because of Race: How Americans Debate Harm and Opportunity in Our Schools

reviewed by Andrea Dyrness - February 24, 2009

coverTitle: Because of Race: How Americans Debate Harm and Opportunity in Our Schools
Author(s): Mica Pollock
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton
ISBN: 069112535X, Pages: 253, Year: 2008
Search for book at Amazon.com

A few years ago at the liberal arts college where I teach, a white male student showed up at a campus Halloween party dressed in blackface. A picture of the student in costume was posted on Facebook and soon created a campus uproar. Students of color and many faculty decried the costume as a racist stereotype that contributed to an unwelcoming campus climate for students of color, while other students and faculty countered that it was a harmless incident “all in good fun.” Dominating the discussion of the incident on campus listservs was the question of the young man’s intentions. When faced with the uproar over his costume, the young man responded that he had never “meant” to harm anyone, and was certainly not a “racist.” Faculty members stepped forward to vouch for the student’s moral character, to demonstrate the impossibility of racist intent, and therefore to establish the uproar as an overreaction. Lost in the discussion of intentions was an examination of the actual effects the costume had on students of color: the ways in which the incident might have limited their opportunities to learn and flourish at the college. Like many colleges across the country, mine is explicitly committed to diversity and equality of opportunity, but still manages to experience several “racial incidents” like this each year. Mica Pollock’s book, Because of Race, offers a welcome analysis of this troubling pattern and the ways in which our debates about racial harm contribute to the reproduction of racial inequality in education today.

Because of Race is about demands for equal educational opportunity in the “new civil rights era,” and the resistance they encounter. Pollock uses the term “new civil rights era” as distinct from “post civil rights era” to signify a struggle for equality in new forms, in an era where the reproduction of racial inequality is “fragmented”—spread across multiple system levels and chains of interactions—rather than explicitly mandated by law. “In an era where racial inequality is no longer ordered by explicit law or applauded explicitly by most Americans,” Pollock writes, “responses to all equal opportunity demands are more complicated” (p. 13). It is these complicated responses to equal opportunity demands that Pollock explores in her book, in the form of four common “rebuttals” she encountered during her work as an employee of the Office of Civil Rights circa 2000. Students and parents of color who filed complaints of racial discrimination with OCR met with staunch resistance by educators, district administrators, and even OCR officials, along four principal arguments: 1) Harms to children of color cannot be proved, 2) Harms to children of color should not be discussed, 3) Harms to children of color cannot be remedied, and 4) Harms to children of color are too “small” to fix. Drawing on her extensive personal and case notes, Pollock examines each of these rebuttals separately and points to the ways they construct barriers to equal educational opportunity. She argues that OCR complainants making demands for “everyday justice”—specific, everyday opportunities they needed in order to have equal opportunity to succeed within schools and districts not segregated by law—touched a raw nerve in American racial sensibilities. In pinpointing everyday acts and actors that denied equal opportunity inside schools, complainants both prompted defensiveness and suggested the kind of “everyday opportunity analysis” that is desperately needed to understand and interrupt racial inequality in the new civil rights era.

Pollock’s first chapter, “Harms to children of color cannot be proved,” illustrates a core dilemma at the heart of her book: the limitations of legal analytical tools in an era when the denial of educational opportunities is not legally mandated. OCR investigators seeking to verify whether alleged acts of discrimination occurred “because of race” were forced into a legal dead-end of proving “racial intent” on the part of the actor in question, or, alternately, proving that such acts did not occur to comparable groups of white students. Comparison to white students was impractical in schools and districts without significant white populations, but the need to prove educator motivations and intent was an analytic impossibility that invited educator defensiveness from the outset. Using real-life cases, Pollock demonstrates how accused districts marshaled their resources to defend educators’ intentions (demonstrating the absence of racial intent), often, in the process, dismissing complainants as difficult, angry, or hostile individuals who saw racial motivations where there were none. Anyone who has worked in American schools will recognize these incidents and the responses they provoked. What is new is Pollock’s analysis of their foundation in legal thinking that is ill-suited for addressing contemporary mechanisms of racial inequality, and her poignant reminder of what is sacrificed. For lost in the debate about educator intentions were the real experiences of harm suffered by students of color and the opportunity to improve educational environments on their behalf.

The second rebuttal, “Harms to children of color should not be discussed,” examines the tendency within OCR to delete specific and forceful language about racial harms in schools or their possible remedies, in order to avoid controversy and ward off critics of federal interventionism. This led to a “fundamental murkiness” about OCR’s role that negated any effective action to improve school climates for students of color. The third rebuttal, “Harms to children of color cannot be remedied,” explores the capitulation of OCR employees to these external critics, as resignation and “learned defeatism” convinced them to circumscribe their own work on behalf of children of color. The distinction between these two rebuttals is less clear, as both seem to have their roots in the same political pressure to avoid naming racism. Most of white America would like to believe that racial inequality is over. Any naming of its continued existence in education, therefore, is likely to be met with resistance. The final rebuttal, “Harms to children of color are too ‘small’ to fix” explores a more unlikely source of resistance, from advocates for sweeping systemic change. These critics wondered whether analyzing and securing changes in the “everyday activity” of schools distracted from large-scale efforts for change or “micromanaged” educators who deserved to be left alone. Here Pollock argues that we must move beyond the impasse of “either” everyday activity “or” systemic change, and understand that the provision of equal opportunity requires both.

Pollock’s is a courageous book, drawing candidly on her personal reflections, questions, and frustrations as an OCR employee (e.g., “things I don’t get about OCR”) and often including herself in the analysis of OCR responses to complaints. She thus models what she advocates as a solution to our analytic impasse: that we acknowledge how each of us bears “partial, unwitting responsibility” for the reproduction of racial inequality, and that we all participate in the analysis of “everyday justice” more often. Her concluding chapter contains several helpful suggestions for “making everyday justice analysis routine in educational settings” (p. 177). In demonstrating the importance of everyday acts and interactions, and thereby the participation of all of us, unwittingly, in the reproduction of racial inequality, Pollock makes a pathbreaking contribution to the study of structural racism, and its undoing, in America. While educators rightly resist the notion that their everyday decisions and actions are wholly to blame for racial inequality, the idea that they are partially to blame is much more palatable, and invites their participation as analyzers of everyday opportunity provision. Pollock’s book has a lesson for students of race at all levels: the best way to ward off defensiveness is to acknowledge that racism happens every day by well-meaning people, and to invite everyone to become ethnographers of their own social realms to identify the critical moments where opportunity is denied or expanded each day.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 24, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15578, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 2:24:47 PM

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About the Author
  • Andrea Dyrness
    Trinity College
    E-mail Author
    ANDREA DYRNESS is an Assistant Professor of Educational Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Her research interests include education and social inequality in the United States and Latin America, Latina feminist epistemologies, and activist research methods and epistemologies. She recently published “Research for change versus research as change: Lessons from a mujerista participatory research team,” in Anthropology and Education Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 1, March 2008.
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