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A protestor calls for inclusion for all women. Jan. 19, 2019. (Robert Tann/CU Independent)

Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of the CU Independent or its staff.

Imagine waking up every day dreading going to school, where you stick out; you do not look like any of your classmates; your teachers seem to have it out for you. This is many young people of color’s reality in America. They face discrimination, exclusion and low expectations while attending predominantly white institutions (PWIs). 

Doctoral candidate Camille Smith with the California Department of Education highlights one dimension of this unfair treatment in a journal article. Her report finds that many students of color perform poorer than middle-class white students, in both test scores and graduation rates. This is what she calls the achievement gap. 

Gary Howard’s 2002 study, “School Improvement for All: Reflections on the Achievement Gap,” details that despite surface-level changes, the American school system continues to operate privileging white individuals. Due to this, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reports that Black and Hispanic students are three times more likely than white students to score “below basic” in testing. Regardless of class differences, students of color perform worse than their white counterparts. This is not a coincidence. 

Dr. Anthony Lewis, superintendent of USD 497 Lawrence Public Schools, corroborates this research. He recalls conversations with his grandparents in elementary school: “Tony, you have to work two times, no, ten times, as hard as your white counterparts.” 

Lewis remembers hearing ideas like these throughout his life. “Some white teachers, when they look at students of color, they might have that similar mindset of, ‘Oh bless his heart, you little black boy,’” Lewis said. Now, with his higher position in the school system, he is determined to change this reality for students like him. 

Students of color work harder to be as successful as white students, which is where microaggressions come into play. 

Lewis shared one microaggression he said he experienced frequently as the first Black superintendent in Kansas.

“Wow, you are so well-spoken,” Lewis said he was told.

This is a widespread saying most often directed toward Black people. It’s one — for that matter — I have even heard myself. Those who say this phrase do so as if Black people should not be able to speak clearly and eloquently. Misbeliefs like these cloud the judgment of white educators and contribute to a system that expects very little from students of color. 

“My first Black teacher was in second grade,” Lewis said at the beginning of our interview.

He asked me when I had my first teacher of color. I had to think for a minute before responding.

“I had one teacher of color [in high school],” I responded.

He simply nodded in solidarity. This is the reality for many students of color: rarely having a teacher of color with whom to truly relate. 

Lewis spoke about his experience studying at an HBCU and how it differed from studying at a PWI he spoke of his professors.

“Your professors were like your aunties or your uncles, [they] were nurturing and also had high expectations for you.” He added how different this was from his, and other students of color, experiences with white teachers,” he said. 

Farah Z. Ahmad and Ulrich Boser dive deeper into this issue in “America’s Leaky Pipeline for Teachers of Color: Getting More Teachers of Color into the Classroom.”

“She would tell me, ‘Tony, you’re smart.’ She brought life into me and from that moment on I got straight A’s all through middle and high school,” Lewis said about his first Black teacher. This special moment of support is what many students of color are missing, a moment that can only authentically be shared with teachers of color. 

Furthermore, in Christopher Emdin’s novel “Ratchetdemic: Reimagining Academic Success,” he highlights the need for role models for students of color in school.

“This school, with hallways full of Black and brown Detroit kids, offered only the longtime Black male janitor as staff representation for young men,” Emdin writes.

Schools with diverse student bodies require diverse faculties. 

To exasperate the problem, students of color are more likely than white students to experience suspension and expulsion. Why? Aaron Kupchik and Nicholas Ellis explore this in “School Discipline and Security: Fair for All Students?”

They argue that this is due to the implicit bias of school administrators and resource officers (SROs) against students of color. Their stereotypical thinking causes those in power to unjustly view students of color as having worse attitudes than their white peers. 

Dr. Walter S. Gilliam, director of The Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at the Yale Child Study Center, conducted an experimental study to further understand this bias. He observed that the white teacher kept a closer eye on the Black preschool student than the white student, believing that he is more likely to misbehave. Gilliam reflects on the upsetting, albeit not surprising, results of the study.

“Implicit bias does not begin with Black men and the police. It begins with Black boys and their preschool teachers,” he wrote.

Gilliam makes the validated point that students learn how to view the world when in the classroom. 

Kupchik and Ellis further explain the unjust punishment students of color suffer in PWIs. Black students are subject to harsher expectations from SROs. These harsher expectations lead students to understand school rules as unfair. 

These harms do not stop at graduation, but rather they follow students throughout their lives. Lewis is proof that when people of color have strong role models they are more likely to succeed. Through hard work to change individuals’ own implicit biases and revisions to the American school system, one day students of color can hope for the same treatment as their white counterparts, to experience true diversity, equity and inclusion.

Contact CU Independent Guest Writer Gabriella Aubel at

This content was originally published here.