Catching systemic racism in the act in Seattle Public Schools

Systemic racism is often hard to see in action.

It’s easy to look back and wonder, how did we get here? How do we have such deep-rooted opportunity gaps in our schools? How do we have so few Black teachers? How can there be such a thing as a “school-to-prison” pipeline? How do we have so few women of color in positions of elected leadership?

These systemic issues are not necessarily carried out by people of malicious intent. They are carried out by all of us every day as we make seemingly reasonable decisions, and through polices and processes that masquerade as neutral.

We are in the eleventh hour of one such process, but it’s not too late! Today — this very evening — we have a chance to catch the system in the act. So let’s do it.

Emijah Smith is one of three finalists to represent District VII (Southeast Seattle) on the Seattle School Board. Because Betty Patu, our longtime school board rep, resigned in the midst of her term, the other six school board members will appoint our new representative without a public vote, choosing today between Smith, Brandon Hersey and Julie Van Arcken.

Seattle Public Schools recently adopted a new strategic plan that specifically focuses on Black male achievement. The moral imperative to serve the students “furthest from educational justice” — which has been one of the catch-phrases of this appointment process — is now also a district mandate.

Nearly half (43 percent) of Black male students in Seattle Public Schools go to District VII schools — including Emijah’s two sons. District VII, not surprisingly, has traditionally been the ward within Seattle Public Schools that is situated “furthest from educational justice.”

Students and families in District VII need things to change. But one way systemic racism plays out in day-to-day environments is through pattern bias, which is at play, for example, when a hiring committee considers a potential employee’s “fit” in the company and the office culture. The board is likely to choose the safest candidate — the candidate most like them — and that is not Emijah. Julie Van Arcken has endorsements from every PTSA and every system imaginable. She has former director Patu’s endorsement. She is the safe candidate — the one most like the existing board.

Two prominent local news outlets published separate stories this morning — the day of the board vote — mentioning a publicly searchable legal issue in Emijah’s past. It’s connected to a situation in which she and her family were trying to stay safe from domestic violence.

Based on a confluence of systemic factors, Emijah is the most likely of these three candidates to have experienced this domestic violence during her lifetime. In a fearful time, Emijah responded to a threat of violence against her family, and I don’t consider it my business to judge women — especially women of color — for their actions and reactions during situations of domestic violence. You can read the stories for yourself. Dahlia Bazzaz reported this news responsibly for the Seattle Times, but Isolde Raftery at KUOW gave us an unfortunate example of how systemic racism plays out through subtly irresponsible journalism.

The article in the Times mentions Emijah’s unfortunate, traumatic incident as one of many notes about many candidates, and in general it shines a light on Emijah’s strengths. Raftery’s sensationalized piece, on the other hand, casts Emijah in the stereotyped light of the “angry Black woman,” and paints her as a criminal of questionable fitness to govern.

Here's one specific example: In the story’s unsavory main image is a partial quote. The full quote would read, “If I didn’t know God, I would beat the shit out of you.” But KUOW chose to cut the important first clause. Now, whether or not Emijah wins this appointment, if you don’t read the article in detail, you’ll still see her face next to a seeming threat of violence.

Not only is this story inaccurately told, it's not a news story to begin with. Journalism like this is what prevents us from stepping back and realizing that this is the moment to make a different decision. Raftery provided one more needless urge to the decision-makers to make a system-safe decision.

This is a moment to apply our unlearning. We can fall prey once again to stereotypical tropes about people of color and remain in our comfort zones as a (mostly white) “progressives,” or we can move in a different direction and trust in the leadership of a woman of color who experiences disparities in this district and all of our systems in Seattle every single day.

If we choose comfort in this moment, we are choosing — knowingly — to perpetuate the inequities in our school system, particularly given that this is the representative for District VII. If we want to come up with new and innovative solutions that will actually close gaps for these students, who better to have on this board? This additional information about Emijah has, if anything, brought up only more wholehearted confidence that she will be able to hold the intersectionality of all of these aspects of oppression in mind as she makes every difficult decision that a board member is called on to make.

What’s comfortable is to turn away in this situation. What’s comfortable is to victim-blame and victim-shame, especially a woman of color. What’s comfortable is to say, “Well, we tried. There was a diverse pool. But at the end of the day, the safest candidate was the best.”

In reality, what we are all being challenged to do right now, myself included, is to lean into the discomfort that could mean revolutionary change for our kids.

Like so many parents in the district, Emijah has been waiting for promises of racial equity to be fulfilled. She has been waiting so long and feels such urgency for her community and her children that she has, at personal risk to herself and her family and her reputation, put herself out there. She applied for this position because she so desperately wants to do the work, even knowing someone would dig up this traumatic moment in her past and air it out.

We now have the privilege and responsibility to respond with justice in mind.

If we say we believe that those closest to the issues we care about — those who are most impacted — need to be a part of the solution, now is the time to act on that value.

As with everything else, there is no neutral.