Home » The Inequity in Systemic Inequity: Combating a System of Complicity

The Inequity in Systemic Inequity: Combating a System of Complicity

The Inequity in Systemic Inequity: Combating a System of Complicity

Fatima Sherif


Illuminating Inequity

The terms “systemic inequity” has come under intense scrutiny as of late in the United States. Public-facing politicians who have never existed as members of marginalized groups are either co-opting the terms for campaign rhetoric or denying the ugly truth that is systemic racism and its relationship to systemic inequity. In September 2020, at a Pennsylvania Rotary Club event, Republican Representative Scott Perry denied the existence of systemic racism stating, “What is systemic? That means there’s a system of. If there’s a system, someone had to create that system…Someone is operating and nurturing the system to keep it going. I don’t know who in our country is doing that.” (Moreno, 2020, Para. 2). As recent as April 2021, Senator Lindsay Graham denied systemic racism stating “America is not a racist country” (Cole, 2021 Para. 1)  How do Representative Perry and Senator Graham explain slavery? And what about the Jim Crow Laws of 1865-1965?  Even more disappointing than Representative Perry’s and Senator Graham’s denial of systemic racism, was their inability to even conceptualize such a thing. Whether it be cognitive dissonance or revisionist history, denial does not erase its existence!

The invisibilizing of systemic racism is exactly racism. As such, systemic inequity is predicated upon the back of systemic racism. Unfortunately, the American education system has been complicit in maintaining such inequities. The field of education has a documented history of calling for equitable spaces in response to changing demographics which King (1991) called the “Browning of America”. Specifically, education researchers such as James Banks and Gloria Ladson-Billings have been intentional in combating racism in education. Through their research, they identified areas in need of serious attention to improve the education playing field for marginalized groups. During Gloria Ladson-Billings’ (2016) presidential address, Ladson-Billings explained that within education, researchers and practitioners are immersed in work that operates from a deficit paradigm focusing on issues of marginalized students of color and not the causality of societal structural factors on achievement differentials (Banks, 2016). The keyword in Ladson-Billing’s (2016) discussion was “causality” which I extracted to mean that inequities exist because there are various causes behind its existence. Inequities are not stumbled upon they are the direct results of an oppressive system.

This paper argues that policies that are not inclusive of dismantling existing power structures are complicit in perpetuating the inequities that exist. Spaces that “advocate” for inclusivity but operate in exclusive hegemonic white spaces must be met with pedagogies of resistance. Pedagogies of resistance are the “theoretical and material strategies critical educators utilize to challenge structural inequities and disrupt systems of power that (re)produce those inequities” (Perez-Huber, 2017 p. 376). Resisting a system that has not been considerate of Black and Brown communities of color requires bold approaches. As such, I will problematize the policies that have stymied education equity by reviewing the history of Black education in the United States. I will then make recommendations to combat systemic inequities utilizing a radical care framework which I consider to be a pedagogy of resistance.

Defining Equity When Inequity is Omnipresent

Equity is a word with so much meaning. A word that is based on egalitarian principles, that arguably speaks to the goals of the American education system and social system. I define equity to mean unbiased opportunities and spaces that are free from structural and systemic barriers allowing for all stakeholders to have access and contribute regardless of individual characteristics or cultural identities (Patel, 2016; Ladson-Billings, 2006). Equity goes beyond providing the same structural apparatus such as a school building or school organization, it is the ability for all stakeholders to have their needs met regardless of the challenges that exist. Equity is an issue of disproportionality as there is an overrepresentation of marginalized groups affected by the inequities that exist. “research should dynamically frame the issue of disproportionality because it is a complex educational issue that cannot be solved with individualized remedies devoid of consideration of context and culture” (Voulgarides, Edward Fergus, & Thorius, 2017, p.78).

The Covid-19 pandemic took the world by storm and for some of our nation’s biggest education systems, the veil was lifted to expose the interconnected space that is occupied by systemic inequity and education. More specifically, the responsibilities that educators were tasked with highlighted that educating students goes beyond hiring underpaid educators, handing them scripted curricula, and grading students. Educating students demands that educators and policymakers alike, must recognize how students are situated and work to dismantle the systems of oppression that the students are in, not just, the students themselves.

 The interrelated processes of social equity and education equity have always been inextricable from each other. The pandemic in many ways illuminated to those who were unaware or unbelieving that inequities do exist and are a real dilemma. As such, education leaders and government entities offer solutions to eliminate barriers but each solution exposed critical flaws in the system. As an example, schools cannot have online learning if students don’t have laptops and you can’t have a laptop if you can’t afford one. And, even when provided with a laptop, what happens when you can’t afford WiFi? In March of 2020, the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) scrambled to purchase twenty-five thousand laptops to distribute to students. More alarming than the need for technology devices was the need for Broadband access or WiFi. The NYC comptroller was aware that as of 2017 there were nine-hundred and seventeen thousand households without online access however, it took a catastrophic event to prompt conversations with various internet providers to negotiate free WiFi access for families (Chang, 2020). The lack of broadband access was normalized to the extent that those who knew and had the power to change this did not feel the need to intervene. Why is that? Again, we see how education equity is inextricable from systemic inequity, that this moment of crisis illuminated what was long true.

Diversity initiatives are at times used as the response to addressing inequities because addressing inequities can be a euphemism for addressing the needs of Black and Brown marginalized groups. Thinking about the ways that the Covid-19 pandemic has affected urban communities specifically Black and Brown people within these communities, has left me with a lot of questions. Why are Black and Brown people continuously used as examples of diversity but never benefit from being such examples? Why were Black and Brown people affected disproportionately by the pandemic? Why weren’t urban schools prepared for online education? Why was equity never a top consideration for the most basic of services? For example, with the rollout of vaccines Black and Brown people, were not considered in equitable ways.

The intention to be considerate of Black and Brown people was there but the rollout was lackluster at best “let’s give the vaccine to our most vulnerable population the 75+!” Sounds great, but, are Black and Brown people living to see 75+? Was that a consideration? “Let’s put vaccination clinics in urban communities” Sounds great, but why aren’t people from these communities able to sign up to get the vaccine? But wait, as indicated in the aforementioned paragraph the Comptroller should have known this was going to be an issue because it was known that there were many households without broadband access. The aforementioned examples undergird the foundational intersectionality of racism and inequity.

How Did We Get Here? Historicizing Black Education and The Policies that Have been Complicit In Oppression

Basic necessities are required for students to thrive in academic settings. These basic requirements include educational supplies, books, educators that honor the voices and experiences of their students, and equal access to opportunities. Upward mobility in an education system that undercuts funding places students at a disadvantage and has long-lasting effects. In 2007, New York City adopted the Fair Student Funding (FSF) budget intended to increase equity by increasing funding to the neediest schools. However, by 2018 only twenty-three percent of NYC schools had received funding at or above the suggested amount based on the FSF funding formula (Disare, 2018). The toxic combination of inadequate funding and a lack of urgency to address such financial deficits stood no chance in preparing inner-city public schools to transition seamlessly into remote learning or account for childcare for students that could participate in online learning. Thus, through the constant underfunding, lackluster execution of inner-city public schools existing as ill-equipped to respond to a catastrophic event such as a pandemic is actually by design. The system literally landed marginalized students in the exact place they were intended to land, in, inequitable forgotten spaces. 

“By design” means to be intentionally set up to operate without interruption of the overall goal – which in this case is to maintain a system that oppresses people and upholds a hierarchical structure based on race. The distorted conceptualizations of inequity and “cultural diversity-understandings” by educators, policy-makers, and researchers also referred to as “dysconcious racism” make it difficult to act in favor of equitable education (King, 1991, p. 134). Public schools from inception were only accessible to white Americans. “It also must be recognized that historical analysis questions whether U.S. law and legal processes and educational policies and practices ever intended to devote an equitable opportunity for educating and liberating all of its citizens because of race” (Brown, Bloome, Morriz, Power-Carter, & Willis, 2017, p.454). Denying access to education due to race makes the case that education was not considered an open playing field where those interested in learning would have the opportunity to learn.  

Throughout United States educational history and the United States democracy, classism has set the stage for the oppression of people as such, “there have been essential relationships between popular education and the politics of oppression” (Anderson, 1988, p.1). The Jim Crow era of racial segregation allowed for anti-Black sentiments to be embedded in the foundations of American culture. Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision of 1896 for example, upheld the constitutionality of the “separate but equal” racial segregation decision (Kauper, 1954). The idea that separate but equal could exist was inherently flawed because Black people in America were not in positions of power to ensure that separate but equal materialize. The segregation laws of the 1880s enacted divisions that fundamentally undermined the experience of Black people in America stripping them of their legal rights to citizenry (National Archives, para. 3). The Jim Crow era of racial segregation allowed for anti-Black sentiments to be embedded in the foundations of American culture. For every instance of Black people seeking education, laws proliferated to restrict the mobility of Black Americans in pursuit of education especially in the South (Anderson, 1988). At a very human level, the messaging stood firm in that there is no space for educational equity for Black people. Worse than limiting access to tangible resources are the mental effects of creating environments that promote hierarchical statures based on race.

Ultimately, Plessy v. Fergurson set the foundation for the Brown v. Board of Education decision. In 1954 the case of Brown v. Board of Education was decided upon. It was legally determined that public schools could not segregate students based on race (Supreme Justia, 1954). “The language of Brown situated the equity discourse as a mandate to provide educational opportunities to all students, with the unstated aim to help all children, regardless of racial or ethnic background, to reach similar educational and career goals” (Jordan, 2010, p.171). The desegregation law of 1954 should have solved the issues of inequity. However, as Ladson-Billings suggested, without addressing the causality or the racist ideologies used to justify segregation, policies meant to reform would instead beget more policies that would continue to reinforce racism in other ways.

In Chicago for example, as full integration became a mandate, white families began to flee from the inner city and move to the suburbs where there were fewer people of color. In that instance it was not a matter of changing the laws, it is a matter of a subscription to an ideology predicated on hatred. Additionally, the U.S. Justice Department (1980) would then sue the Board of Education of the City of Chicago for gerrymandering school attendance zones to maintain segregation (Shedd, 2015). Imagine that, an entire school board in the third-largest city in America being sued for intentionally manipulating school zones to maintain racial separatism. Schools were organized by neighborhoods and were demographically homogeneous, reaffirming the lack of consideration for Black education. The U.S. Justice Department also found that there was an underutilization of white schools and overcrowding of Black schools. The “White Flight” from Chicago’s inner-city resulted in the white flight from Chicago’s urban public schools (Shedd, 2015). Chicago is just one example of Black marginalization through policy as the zoning tactics were intentional in that they were put in place to keep Black people out.

Consequently, such policies have been intensely entrenched in racism from the start and as a result have maintained a pernicious influence on the treatment of marginalized people of color in education. The public school system has actively continued the legacy of racially divisive education by utilizing “curriculum and pedagogy that relegated the culture and experiences of various racial groups to the margins” (Brown, Bloome, Morris, Power-Carter, & Willis, 2017, p.457). Federal education policies like Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind used testing to gauge achievement in schools but failed to consider the fundamental stratification that occurs (Patel, 2016). Again, the complexities of education policies and a failure to acknowledge the insidious nature of how race operates lead to inequities that further alienate Black and Brown people.

In some cases, government entities and unjust policies have operated as socio-political structures that have impacted Black and Brown marginalized people of color in damaging ways. There is a lack of accountability for anyone that is part of the dominant society and situated in a position of power. As previously mentioned, the failures of Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind garnered attention for the racialized disproportionality but there was no accountability for policy makers that propped up these policies as the standards to shift education. Policymakers and those in positions of power are seldomly held accountable when it comes to understanding why things are not working as intended. A society that is backed by any form of government that is committed to defining people as “other” is complicit in creating an unjust society.

The understanding that there are actual politics involved in how someone feels included and receives services in various aspects of life, from education services to health services has prompted a critical response to changing times. It is Black and Brown people that have dealt with the subjectivities of their critical consciousness as they have operated in spaces that are not accepting. This has led to these same groups dealing with and fighting against oppression in every area of society from education to housing. To combat the oppression experienced in education, educators and stakeholders must engage with and embrace frameworks that resist normative practices that are inherently violent towards Black and Brown communities. Applying a radical care framework seeks to engage stakeholders and respond to oppressive systems.

Radical Care Framework: A Pedagogy of Resistance 

A primary way to disrupt systems of power and position educators and stakeholders alike to be transformative in education spaces and beyond is to utilize critical race theory, armed love, care, and civic engagement. Collectively I consider the previously listed terms to be a radical care framework. A radical care framework is a pedagogy of resistance it is bold or radical enough to change the normative spaces that are often silencing, oppressive, and racist towards marginalized communities of color. Critical Race Theory (CRT) is the theorizing of race; it calls out the role that race and racism have played out in perpetuating the inequities between dominant and marginalized groups (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Hiraldo, 2010). Armed love derives from Paulo Freire’s (1998) work on centering love liberation and humanity in education. Rivera McCutchen (2019) makes the case that armed love is the activation of leadership; that actively resists forces that stand in the way of educational opportunities and experiences. Noddings (2005) defined Authentic Care as a centering of a trusting relationship between educators and students that is reciprocal which allows for educators to become more in touch with the student’s needs and more understanding of the student’s circumstances (Tichnor-Wagnor & Allen, 2016). Civic engagement under the radical care framework calls for the reenvisioning by educators and politicians of what is considered civic engagement for marginalized youth of color.

     Critical Race Theory

Race exists as a significant factor in determining inequity in the United States (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995). Critical Race Theory has offered to the discourse a lens that can be used to highlight the racialized experiences and inequities in education (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995). Specifically, CRT unpacks the cultural and social-structural significance of race and marginalization in education (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995). Unfortunately, any changes to create equity become meaningless without unpacking the insidious nature in which racism operates. CRT is important because it does away with viewing race as an arbitrary factor that is unseen and puts it front and center. A failure to acknowledge the realities of the normalization of the privileging of white individuals over people of color stymies the ability to achieve equity in education (Hiraldo, 2010). To create equity in urban education, CRT can be used in the following ways: as a tool for interpretation, as a system of accountability, and as a structural disruptor.

CRT can be used as a tool for the interpretation of racialized experiences in homogenous white spaces (Joseph, Hailu, & Boston, 2017). CRT demands a system of accountability by calling for the self-reflection that is needed to implement change. Change is impossible if educators, researchers, policymakers, and other key stakeholders aren’t aware of their culpability. CRT can also be used as a structural disruptor that is, an interruption in the way the education apparatus operates (Joseph et. al., 2017). Access to tangible items such as books and writing materials, availability of culturally responsive educators, and policies and/or programs that enhance the success of marginalized student populations are all considered structural disruptors (Joseph et. al., 2017). Furthermore, activating these structural disruptors to operate simultaneously allows for more equitable outcomes.

     Armed Love

At the crux of armed love is the idea of being fearless in the pursuit of transformative education. Stakeholders that are interested in being transformative should be fearless in their approach as they push for education equity. “Armed love” is exactly what is needed if we want to see changes in society and the field of education as it activates the love in “armed love” and also the notion of being fearless “the love required in education for liberation and equality cannot be timid” (Rivera McCutchen, 2019, p. 237). The issues within urban education have less to do with the people that are seeking education and more to do with the structural, systemic, and environmental violence that is experienced by Black and Latin-X communities (Miller, Brown, & Hopson, 2011). Similarly, to find solutions and address the issues that plague our education system, we have to look beyond individual circumstances and recognize how interconnected political and economic forces are in perpetuating injustice (Darder, 1998).

     Authentic Care

Authentic Care is the recognition of students’ cultural significance, all of the contributions that they bring into the classroom, and engages them as part of the democratic process of schooling (Antrop-Gonzalez & Dejesus, 2006). Tichnor-Wagner and Allen (2016) evaluated case studies on urban high schools that had high numbers of success despite serving low-income, minority, and/or students at risk of dropping out. They found that there was a school-wide ethic of care that led to high levels of “ student engagement, social and emotional competence, academic achievement and attainment, and reduced dropout rates” (Tichnor-Wagner & Allen, 2016, p. 407). At the core of their finding was that the schools emphasized relationships that were trusting, respectful, and upheld academic rigor which are all tenets of authentic care. Authentic care is the affirming of students and when authentic care is immersed in school culture it becomes inextricable from student success (Antrop-Gonzalez & Dejesus, 2006; Tichnor-Wagner & Allen, 2016).

Authentic caring cannot be forced onto educators instead, it must be demanded. More specifically, if educators aren’t able to care about the students they serve then they don’t deserve the right to teach. The aforementioned point of demanding caring educators is strong but the damage that has been done by those who don’t care has been worse. Students respond to caring environments provided that it is the right care as such they also respond to being held accountable because of established trust and the belief by their school leaders in their greatness (Curry, 2016; Rivera-McCutchen, 2012). It is the student success that combats and resists a system that has been established for them to fail.

Rivera-McCutchin (2020) emphasized that there is a fundamental shift that needs to occur for any call to action to be transformative and that is a commitment to social justice and anti-racism. In a case study that looked at the work of a principal in a small urban high school, Rivera-McCutchin (2020) highlighted the boldness in the approach of the principal which was specific in exemplifying authentic care. The principal did not retreat in the face of racial and political injustice instead, he acknowledged the deleterious effects of police brutality on the psyche of Black and Brown children by planning conferences and organizing walk-outs. Similarly, the principal made it a point to change the school culture greeting students in the morning and humanizing their existence by asking about their family members and calling students by their names, he built a welcoming environment that took away front the notion that students are “just numbers/statistics” in his school. Lastly, it was Principal Johnson’s intolerance and/or disbelief in mediocrity, the application of authentic care, and a commitment to social justice that pushed the school to function in optimal capacity.

     Civic Engagement

According to Ginwright (2011), civic engagement has historically been viewed as “citizenship through individual acts of volunteering” (Ginwright, 2011, p. 34). However, Ginwright argues that it is that limited view that does not take into consideration the way history communities, and societal forces shape civic activities. As such, conceptualizing what civic engagement “looks like” must be reimagined. Protests, strikes, and civil disobedience not only look to address social change but highlight issues of injustice (Ginwright, 2011). The Black Lives Matter protests, for example, played an integral role in messaging the frustration that some people in society were/are feeling. The protest to some was considered blasphemous perhaps it was because they were not widely conceptualized as acts of civic engagement. Ginwright (2011) discusses the limitations of qualifying what is considered civic engagement. Thus, reimagining how civic engagement is defined and imagining it to be a tool to address systemic inequities can center injustice and empower marginalized people of color. Cammorata (2011) also discusses the ability for youth to feel empowered once they’ve adopted a social justice perspective which would allow them to conceptualize that there are systemic forces that operate beyond them.

Final Thoughts 

All things considered, there are “allies” that are fighting the good cause by defending and fighting against oppressive systems. However, at times these same “allies” are still dictating the terms and conditions of the fight and what’s best for the people they are fighting for.  It is literally, the most frustrating part of pursuing a higher education degree. In the higher education space, the purpose is to be transformative and push the discourse further but, the indoctrination into situating and historicizing education is based on mediocrity and taught from a linear white lens. The idea of ridding ourselves of systemic inequities by embracing a Radical Care framework eventually leading to an emancipatory education feels, sounds, and when envisioned, looks good. However, I am reminded of an article by Sonya Douglass Horsford (2021) where the question asked is, who will lead the charge? The honoring of voices from marginalized people expressing their wants and needs is imperative but somehow, just never gets incorporated. And, when it is, it is usually by way of a diversity initiative. The title alone “diversity initiative” unintentionally strips the significance away from being a national response, policy response, and/or societal response to being an issue exclusively for those who are being oppressed. This completely shifts responsibility and charges those who have been recipients of oppression to fix it. Why should the oppressed be held accountable for a system that they inherited?

A Radical Care Framework puts the ownership of being a disruptor and being transformative on those who are in positions to make a radical change. Activating critical race theory provides the space for Black and Brown marginalized groups to be heard and seen as epistemological experts. Education policies that ignore structural stratification, the effects of racial separatism, and injustice should be stopped from inception. Similarly, marginalized people of color should be included in the decision-making process and exist as holders of power as well.

The way research is conducted should not perpetuate inequity but instead should operate as a disruptor of inequities within education. Armed love creates an environment of fearlessness for those who are willing to be fearless in their pursuits to dismantle a system that is unwilling to give up. Authentic care situates those who have been marginalized to be free in their pursuit of greatness by being supported in ways that are encouraging of their whole selves. Civic engagement activates the critical consciousness needed to navigate an oppressive system and push back against injustice. Thus, if you are in spaces that are intended to be transformative but are missing the previously mentioned tools needed to dismantle, then I suggest you evaluate your position. DO YOU DISRUPT or PERPETUATE?


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