If you are a principal in 2020–21, you’re likely having a career-defining year. What began in March 2020 as a “few weeks” of sheltering in place soon emerged as one of the most chaotic, disruptive external events of your career. Weeks turned into months, and those months unleashed a host of other explosions on our routines and peace. The racial tensions that have been simmering beneath the surface as quiet discontent erupted into a global call for racial reckoning, institutional change, and lasting accountability.
One essential truth the current flaring of racial tensions has taught me is that America doesn’t just have a race problem; America has a caste problem. According to Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, “A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places.”
Related, but not the equivalent, is racism—a manufactured social, economic, cultural, and political construct embedded into every aspect of society and designed to justify and make tangible the underpinning social order of the American caste system and its intended permanence.
If you have not been trudging through the murky organizational terrain of dismantling caste and advancing racial equality already, this year may feel like a shock to your system. But don’t fret. As a leader, you have enormous power and influence to institutionalize lasting change for your school.
No matter who you are or what you’ve experienced, you’re part of the problem. That’s the tough reality. White leaders may grapple with the discomfort of their unearned privilege. Black leaders may struggle with the labor involved in just surviving and finding their voices in a system designed to bend to their leadership. Other leaders of color may be challenged by the struggle between anti-Black racism and how the system rewards proximity to whiteness and the rejection of Black allyship. No matter where you are on the continuum, there is a path forward, but be mindful that you cannot hope to lead your community through this equity journey without doing the personal work required to reshape and re-create your thinking and decisions about how to create an anti-racist, anti-caste, and more equitable school community.
If you live in America, you have been subjected to the same racist and classist cultural stereotypes about Black identity and potential as everyone else—this is true even for folks of color. How do you combat this? Find a community of other school leaders who are coming together to explore their own internalized racial superiority and inferiority, including how it has manifested in their personal lives and assumptions about their students and families and influenced their hiring and evaluation of staff. (See the reading list on page 57 and consider reading these resources as a way to spur conversations.)
Examining School Data
What does school data tell you about your students’ experience in your building? Who is being disciplined and suspended? An October article in The New York Times noted, “In New York City, Black girls in elementary and middle school were about 11 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers in 2017, according to a report from the Education Trust-New York, a research and advocacy group.” A 2016 study, “Discretion and Disproportionality: Explaining the Underrepresentation of High-Achieving Students of Color in Gifted Programs,” by Grissom and Redding indicated that Black and Latinx students were 66 percent and 47 percent respectively less likely to be identified for gifted education programs, and teacher bias was the primary explanation for their underrepresentation.
Today, according to the U.S. Department of Education, white teachers make up 83 percent of the workforce, while the number of Black and Latinx college graduates has risen over the last few decades. What are the turnover rates for faculty and staff of color? You can use this data to set quantitative and qualitative goals to support change over the next few years. What will accountability look like? How will you hold yourself and others accountable for moving the needle on equity? Can you build your equity agenda into your school’s performance management system? Interrogate your school’s culture and results and leverage your findings to right the ship.
Equity work is shared work because casteism is insidious and entrenched in every aspect of our lives. Caste is like bones—held structurally in place by a web of muscle, fat, internal organs, and connective tissue that represent class, sex, gender identity, culture, physical ability, etc. As Wilkerson explains in Caste, race is just the skin. Create an internal, representative equity committee to hold the work together. Include administrators, faculty, paras, and parents. This committee should do the work of communicating data findings: articulating collective goals for equity and anti-caste, anti-racism work at your school, and engaging and exciting folks across the organization to help advance the work through intermittent celebrations.
I also encourage the creation of race-based affinity conversations and spaces. White people need a space to speak honestly about their biases and progress in moving the needle forward. Black people need a space to speak openly about the added labor they may experience in helping to advance this work. Other people of color who find themselves navigating identity along the complicated American caste continuum also need space to locate themselves and their experiences. Designate a portion of your professional development budget to engage in equity training and facilitation.
Content Is Queen
You can’t truly create a more equitable and inclusive community without reviewing your curriculum. “Multicultural curriculum” has become a catchall to reflect everything that doesn’t center white identity. But be more specific. If you are serving a Native American community, there should be significant representation of the lived experiences of Native Americans throughout the school curriculum—in science, in history, in language, in literature. Engage with local community resources if you’re lost: a local professor, a local nonprofit, or a cultural affinity group. This is also a good time to assign members of your equity committee to review your textbooks for inaccuracies—you’d be surprised by the distortions and half-truths that make it into textbooks that help to reinforce stereotypes and distort the lived experiences of nonwhite people. Don’t wait for a “history month” to cram diverse content into the canon.
None of us is personally responsible for the caste system we inherited—whether we benefit directly from this system or struggle to live our full lives because we find ourselves at the bottom of the social strata. But, in the words of the great Ella Baker, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”
Danielle R. Moss, EdD, is CEO of Oliver Scholars in New York City. She is also the co-founder of The Ebony Vanguard and was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to New York City’s Commission on Gender Equity.
Sidebar: Equity Reading List
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson; Random House, 2020.
White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo; Beacon Press, 2018.
Deep Denial: The Persistence of White Supremacy in the United States History and Life, David Billings; Crandall, Dostie, & Douglass Books, 2016.
Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues: Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown Girls, Monique W. Morris; The New Press, 2019.
Equity by Design, Mirko Chardin and Katie Novak; Corwin Press, 2021.
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, Beverly Daniel Tatum; Basic Books, 2017.