Why equity, and why racial equity?

By Corrie Wallace
Corrie Wallace is a consultant, anti-oppression educator, and community organizer who works with school districts in Illinois.

It’s 2018. Why are we still talking about race and what’s all this talk about equity in schools?

Equity is about fairness, justice, and individuals getting what they need and deserve in order to reach their full potential. This is as opposed to equality, which is about sameness and treating everyone in exactly an identical manner regardless of their differences or unique situations. Focusing on racial equity acknowledges that race is one of the first visible indicators of identity, while recognizing that students hold multiple, intersecting identities such as mental or physical ability, sexual orientation including gender identity and/or expression, religion, economic status, national origin, and many other personal characteristics.

As historian Robin D. G. Kelley says, “Racism isn’t about how you look, it’s about how people assign meaning to how you look.”

Fundamental to understanding equity work is clarity regarding the historical context which informs our current situation, where the racial predictability of achievement and disciplinary outcomes in schools is pervasive nationally and locally.

Why are we talking about this?

Point 1: Throughout U.S. history, racially discriminatory policies and practices in housing, healthcare, and education have systematically disenfranchised black people and people of color, impacting schools and our children. Tuskegee’s syphilis experiment, Illinois’ sundown towns, and the forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women are just a few examples. From laws prohibiting anyone teaching kidnapped and enslaved African people to read and write, to the Native American boarding schools that forbade children from speaking their mother tongue, students of color have been intentionally and negatively impacted by the United States school system.

Point 2: According to the 2017 Illinois School Report Card, there are 2,028,162 students in 3,796 schools in Illinois, and over half of them are students of color. Black and Hispanic students comprise 43 percent of the total student population. Eleven percent are limited English proficient, 50 percent are from low-income households, and 14 percent have IEPs (Individualized Education Program for special education and related services). Disproportionate academic outcomes for students who are black or Hispanic reflect this trend in Illinois as evidenced by 10th- through 12th-grade students taking advanced coursework such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or Dual Credit. High school dropout rates show similar racially predictable patterns.

Scholar Sonia Nieto asserts, “Simply desegregating schools will not make a difference until the power relations within such settings are challenged.”

Therefore, acknowledging the history of white supremacy in U.S. schools is a fundamental step towards building understanding and addressing the persistent racial achievement gap. The tenets of Gloria Ladson-Billings’ CRT (Culturally Relevant Teaching) reminds us that creating a more equitable learning environment will require respect at the most basic level, student empowerment, cultivating cultural capital and honoring student backgrounds and social identities, including but not limited to gender expression, religion, and ethnicity. Additionally, adults must model lifelong learning through sustainable professional development to enhance skills and knowledge along with a commitment to collaborate and model loving accountability for all of our children.

Here are eight essential elements for board members to consider to support racial equity in schools:

  1. Be humble. Acknowledge that you don’t know everything.
  2. Self-reflect. What are you good at and what will you need help with? Where will you go to get the help you need?
  3. Listen and be open to learning.
  4. Seek balance in perspectives, first to understand, then to be understood.
  5. Strive for loving accountability.
  6. Honor those who have come before you and upon whose shoulders you stand.
  7. Acknowledge where you get things from. Name and thank people in your school community who’ve helped you out.
  8. Remember we’re not talking about pizza or pie. Empowering traditionally underrepresented groups of people improves quality of life for everyone.  


Sonia Nieto, Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education.

Robin D. G. Kelley, Distinguished Professor and Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. History, UCLA. www.history.ucla.edu/faculty/robin-kelley

Gloria Ladson-Billings, Kellner Family Chair in Urban Education, Department of Curriculum & Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Madison. lmcreadinglist.pbworks.com/f/Ladson-Billings%20%281995%29.pdf

Illinois Report Card: www.illinoisreportcard.com/