A Houston-area teenager recently suffered an unexpected insult when her teacher, in a year-end mock awards ceremony, awarded her a certificate stating she was “most likely to become a terrorist.” Lizeth Villanueva, 13, a student at Anthony Aguirre Junior High School in Channelview, Texas, said she was angry but too shocked to respond.
She later said she didn’t really understand why she received the “award.” Her teacher laughed as she presented it, and the ceremony went on. To make matters worse, Lizeth wasn’t the only one the teacher decided to humiliate. Other awards included “most likely to become homeless,” “most likely to blend in with white people” and “most likely to cry for every little thing.”
The timing of the not-so-honorable awards couldn’t have been worse, as just one day before, there had been a terrorist attack at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. All over the world, people were mourning the loss of lives from the attack, and terrorism isn’t a laughing matter for anyone.
Like her daughter, Lizeth’s mother Ena Hernandez didn’t find the award at all funny. She was upset and angry, and could not understand why her daughter was the target of ridicule. Lizeth was an honors student and had not been in any trouble.
Racist? At the Very Least, It’s Insensitive
The Channelview school district issued a typical apology, citing the mock awards as “insensitive and offensive.” Many parents feel the teacher should have been fired, and that more should be done to prevent this from happening again. Some opined the “terrorist” label is outright racism.
Lizeth is of Hispanic descent, and the teacher is African-American. Is this a case of racial discrimination, or just foolish, insensitive behavior? Your perception stems from your personal experiences. But racism and other types of appearance-based biases can have a long-lasting negative impact on our youth.
Young people who suffer from racist behavior can be at risk for mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Feelings of racial discrimination can result in low self-esteem, the inability to cope with everyday life and an increase in behavioral problems.
Still Separate, Not Equal
Public school desegregation theoretically ended in 1954 with the landmark Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education. But can we truly claim our public schools are integrated when most of them are zoned to be near the communities they serve? A school zoned for a lower-income neighborhood is not likely to have many students from a higher socioeconomic background. And, unfortunately, wage inequalities are often divided among racial lines as well.
These disparities keep minority students from achieving, and put them at higher risk for dropping out of school. Findings from surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Education shine a harsh light on the realities of racial inequities in our schools.
- Black students were suspended annually at a rate of 16 percent, compared to 5 percent of white students.
- Seven percent of black students go to schools where 20 percent of their teachers do not meet their licensing requirements. Since minority students have less qualified teachers, they are less able to succeed or to gain access to advanced courses.
- Teachers in schools with mostly non-white student bodies make, on average, $5,000 less per year than their counterparts in schools with majority white students.
- Roughly 16 percent of public schools have a majority black population, but they represent almost 30 percent of schools requiring intervention by law enforcement and subsequent arrests.
How Racial Bias Is Setting Students Up To Fail
These trends, and their unfortunate results, are often referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” School policies encourage police presence at schools, rough physical restraint tactics and suspensions that keep students out of school for long periods of time. To make matters worse, many schools have enacted “zero-tolerance” policies. This means one disciplinary visit to the principal’s office could snowball into mandatory suspension and even involvement with law enforcement.
Racial minorities and students with disabilities tend to disproportionately represent the school-to-prison pipeline. These students also often have issues that educators are not adequately trained to deal with. Law enforcement officers can only remove and punish these students, rather than providing the counseling or therapy that would lead to real solutions.
While discipline and law enforcement may be necessary at times, students with behavioral problems should be assessed to see what their needs are and directed accordingly to professionals who can help them.
Racism has a far-reaching effect on our youth. Discrimination, intolerance and subpar learning environments can halt kids’ development and even keep them at a disadvantage throughout adulthood. Our kids deserve better than an environment that puts so many students at such a clear disadvantage. We need to partner with our communities and teachers to address these problems as soon as possible.