Note: This is part of a forum on Education Reform’s Race Debate.
The necessary call for more diversity in prominent education leadership roles is not a substrate of identity politics or newly emerging plank of left-wing political agendas. Nor, for that matter, is the growing belief that true school reform is deeply about social justice. Both are part of a growing nationwide demand to truly embrace our country’s unique diversity and make real the banner on our currency: e pluribus unum. Out of many, one.
So, let’s examine that currency, broadly speaking. The United States is considered the land of opportunity, and there is ample and well-documented evidence that the true “currency” of opportunity is education. For citizens to live the American Dream, where they freely pursue their interests, exercise their rights, and participate fully in our market economy, they must receive a good education, grounded in the sophisticated skills and knowledge that our free, mandatory, high-quality public education for all should provide.
Our country has had a long and storied history of being a proud “melting pot,” with citizens of many races and ethnicities, and immigrants from many other nationalities joining hands to build a great nation. Together, these many Americans have fought enemies abroad and built the infrastructure and edifices that define our modern landscape at home. Our strong and visible history of common purpose and opportunity for all, so celebrated and protected, is the epitome of diversity in all its forms.
If recognizing these ideals and holding ourselves to them is some errant form of identity politics, then count me in. I firmly believe that when anyone is excluded, we begin to unravel the very fabric of the Republic. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told us: “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” This is the cornerstone of our national identity, advanced in the Declaration of Independence, assured in our Constitution, and protected in our courts. It is neither left nor right. It belongs equally to everyone.
So I fail to understand why, when our fellow citizens protest, demand, and explain that such mutuality is missing from our education system, they are met with criticism. I fail to understand why calling out educational leadership for its lack of diversity is met with frustration and rationalized as mere identity politics.
Then there are the larger demands, which undergird concerns about education: our country’s promise of justice for all is simply not being kept. Wage justice, health justice, housing justice, criminal justice, economic justice, and social justice are missing for too many Americans, particularly citizens of color. Of course, many white Americans have had the American dream deferred or stolen, an intolerable injustice. But many more Americans of color are existing (not living) in conditions so far from equal that we as a pluralistic, multiracial, proudly diverse country must not tolerate them.
Overseas, we have gone to war, sent vast sums of aid, and engaged in diplomacy to liberate others in similar conditions. Yet we decry pleas of the home chorus when, in our own backyard, we see what horrifies and deeply moves us abroad? I am confused by this discomfort. I don’t understand being agitated by the rightful demand that opportunity be the same for all in our country.
Keeping currency as our focus and metaphor, I think it appropriate and necessary that the manifesto of school reform be at least complemented by the intersectionality of race, wealth, health, and social justice. In so many ways—the founding of kindergarten, the work of the Committee of Ten, the ascension of ideas from John Dewey, Horace Mann, Sal Castro, and Jaime Escalante, among others—we have looked to education as Mann’s “great equalizer” and the primary doorway to the American Dream. When this doorway is blocked, or narrowed, or open only for some, then justice is denied, specifically to citizens of color.
Our diversity and shared commitment to justice for all brings us strength. That commitment must be clear and represented among educators and education leaders. If out of many, we are one, then I truly believe that out of one, we will be none.
John E. Deasy is a superintendent in residence at the Broad Academy and former superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.