When Race is the Primary Job Qualification for Teachers

Portrait of Charles Hamilton Houston
Charles Hamilton Houston of Howard Law School, who trained Thurgood Marshall, made superb lawyers, period.

A few years ago, I met with two program directors. One worked for a well-respected education nonprofit, the other for a local public-school district. They had each recently released employees for poor job performance. Both of the released employees were people of color. When I asked the directors what they had covered in the job interviews with these employees, the directors told me they had asked the job seekers for their story. Though one candidate had received a degree in psychology and the other had received a degree in social work, neither program director had asked the candidates during the interviews how to apply their disciplinary knowledge. The focus was only on their story. Competence was assumed because the candidates were black American adults who would be working with students of color—and race seemed to be the primary criteria the directors were looking for.

One struggles to understand a job interview in which the job qualifications are secondary. I’m a humanities and literature teacher— the only black male reading specialist I’ve ever met, so far. I’m not an engineer. But I have the impression that when bridge builders interview people for jobs, they talk about bridges… or at least physics. This is not the case for those of us who “work with kids,” and the omission has become so normal that there are now catchphrases to explain the situation. Mr. Jacobs is a good math teacher because he “comes from where the students are from.” Ms. Mitchell is a good literature teacher because she “has been where they’ve been.” Mr. Jackson is a good teacher because he can “relate” to the students. Polite people that we are, we never question these assumptions, though the implication seems to be that race conveys a special knowledge that makes a practitioner’s competence secondary at best or off-limits at worst.

And therein lies the problem: if Mr. Jacobs was hired because he is a black man, and not because he is a good teacher, how can an administrator evaluate the deployment of his blackness with his students? Can she poke her head into his room one day and say, “I saw you explain equations yesterday, and, well, it just didn’t seem black enough the way you did it.” No reasonable or self-respecting black person would let this fly—but then what is the recourse for evaluating Mr. Jacobs if his job is simply to be a black man for his students?

The word “mentoring” comes to mind. Presumably Mr. Jacobs’ mentoring would involve some academic or intellectual purpose, but this takes us back to the beginning of the problem: to many people, the most important reason for having him around is that he’s black, not that he’s a brilliant math teacher. If disciplinary knowledge is assumed or not important enough to feature, then can we blame Mr. Jacobs for being irritated or bored during professional development sessions that are only about understanding math and how to teach it well, which he has been told is his secondary function at best?

Race matters tremendously in education and other professions. It also seems safe to claim that teachers of color make different mistakes around race and racism than white teachers, perhaps because teachers of color are more likely to be victims of racism. By failing to articulate how race enhances intellectual competence or vice versa, however, we consign professionals of color to gilded ghettos where we talk about “representation,” but not algebra; “relating,” but not literacy; “diversity,” but not empowerment. Anyone who has been to a racial-training session in the past ten years knows what this looks like.

This is not meant to argue that relationships don’t matter. Literature on trauma and attachment shows how life-changing human connection can be. Nor is it to say that hiring managers should not recruit from the widest possible pool and reach out to try to attract candidates from diverse backgrounds. They should; research suggests teacher diversity benefits students, and actively seeking diverse candidates may help correct the effects of prior generations’ failures. In interviews, recruiters may even want, reasonably, to ask job candidates of any race about their life stories as a way of getting them talking and understanding them as individuals before moving on to questions about skills and qualifications.

But the real danger of treating race as a sole or even primary job qualification lies in how demeaning it is to people of color. It’s like someone decided that we couldn’t learn or internalize the requisite intellectual competence to excel in our fields, so we have been given magic as a sop.

We have done much better than this before. Charles Hamilton Houston of Howard Law School, who trained Thurgood Marshall, made superb lawyers, period. Lloyd Richards of Yale Drama School was an important part of August Wilson’s plays becoming what they are in American culture. If Toni Morrison or Octavia Butler had not been great writers, then we would not know their names. Saying that Houston, Richards, Morrison, and Butler were maestros because they were black tells us nothing about what it takes to become a rigorous attorney, a magisterial theater director, or a brilliant author.

If you believe that people of color have the same potential as everyone else, then your task is to celebrate that potential—and hire intellectually qualified job candidates for the professional roles in which they’ll truly excel.

Drego Little is a literature and writing teacher at Rainier Scholars.

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