So, Not to Embarrass People, But Maybe They Just Don't Know

Race and education reform - Full interview with Shaun Harper | VIEWPOINT
Race and education reform - Full interview with Shaun Harper | VIEWPOINT

How can education reformers constructively address the inequities surrounding race in education without alienating people? USC's Shaun Harper offers his insi...


Shaun Harper is the Allen Chair of Urban Leadership at the University of Southern California, and the man who's been asked to build a large new center for thinking about equity and promoting equity in K-12 and higher education. And, man, is he gonna upset the apple cart.

Harper's mission is "learning and racial justice." He really doesn't want to get into an argument over what has gone wrong in the past, but he is going to persuade educators to take stock of their actions.

"Yelling at people and attempting to embarrass them and all that stuff is just not ... is not going to help me achieve what it is that I'm going for," Harper said in a recent "Viewpoint" interview.

Harper is in the business of teaching teachers to address their "biases," namely their insistence that because they're in an authority position and know the answer in their heads to the question they're about to ask that they don't have to listen or accommodate or shift perspective.

In the era of "code words," that may sound like Harper is just coming up with a more nuanced way of shaming white people for not doing more to help underprivileged kids of color, or he's contriving ways to force educators to jump on the "social justice warrior" bandwagon. But that's not his goal.

"I do wanna challenge people to think and to grow and to perhaps consider, you know, a set of perspectives that are more justice-centered, that are more reflective of communities of color and honors the realities of race and the realities of people in communities of color. But I can't force them to, you know, think differently, right?"

Harper acknowledges that people who want equity don't all adhere to one particular set of political beliefs, and that means they take a different approach toward problem-solving. At the same time, those different approaches often set off charges of racial insensitivity or racially explosive language and accusations.

Dropping the "you did too" game, however, gets educators one step closer to sincerely calling out the issues that need to be addressed. And that leads to a more sincere strategy to address true inequities.

"Sometimes reformers attempt to address racial inequities in a raceless way, without explicitly naming race, without explicitly naming populations by their names, right? So in other words, I've seen people attempt to carry out reforms by saying that there are certain populations that are persistently underserved or chronically, you know, absent or whatever without saying, 'We're talking about black kids,' or, 'We're talking about Latino kids.' I think that it's really important to name what it is and who it is that we're talking about," he said.

Harper has worked with four institutions so far whose educators are honest about "missteps" they've made in trying to approach the "really vexing and persistent racial equity issues in their schools."

His program starts by giving participants "delicious things to read" that evoke what they really think about the topic. Mixed with a soft touch and the right questions, particularly about how diverse their own personal and professional network is, people start to take stock of their own firsthand knowledge and the limitations of their experiences.

Once they have that personal inventory, he says he finds much less resistance to the notion of creating meaningful learning opportunities for students, as well as developing solutions that avoid setting people on the defensive or the attack.

"You know, my belief ... is that educators want to be effective. They wanna be fair. They actually want to achieve racial equity, but they just don't know how, oftentimes. They don't have the skill. You know, they're not genetically bad people, right? So if you start from that place, you know, I think, at least for me, like I just I get no pushback."