While our hearts go out to the victims, family, teachers and community affected by the November 30, 2021 school shooting at Oxford High School, a White suburb north of Detroit, the tragedy points to several difficult race and equity concerns that might not be obvious, especially to White people. The danger is that if we do not apply an uncomfortable critical lens that pays attention to race, people of all colors will continue to suffer and die in schools and communities all over.
But how can people become aware that widely held beliefs are racially biased and thus, dangerous, especially in response to an emotionally charged event?
First, let’s further consider some alternate scenarios, some of which were raised by an African American colleague and friend, Dr. Patricia Coleman-Burns, who lives in another predominantly White suburb of Detroit:
· What if the shooter at Oxford High School had been Black or Brown?
Would he have been repeatedly dismissed as simply suffering temporary emotional distress and not a danger to himself or others?
· Would he have been allowed to carry a gun in his backpack into a majority Black school?
· Would his parents have been allowed to leave him at the school despite the school's insistence that they remove him from campus?
· Would administrators in a majority Black school not have taken some other pre-emptive action towards the boy or his uncooperative parents?
I’ll share some data in a minute but first let’s talk about how these questions and others could inform a critical lens on the subject. I am White teacher who teaches about race talk. I have used a series of focusing questions in classrooms and community groups to challenge racial myths and anti-Black narratives that keep White people from seeing truths about everyday policies and practices. In a case like the Oxford High School shooting, a helpful question is, “Does anyone have or know about a different experience?” When a teacher or group leader creates room in a discussion for alternate perspectives, people can hear histories, family stories, experiences and concerns from people who have been less influenced by dominant narratives.
Consider, for example, what students, teachers, and parents from a majority Black school would say about the consequences of bringing a gun to their school. My guess is that the people from a majority Black school, or even students and parents of color in a majority White school, would point out that Black or Brown students would be treated differently if they carried a gun to school.
Here is some data to consider about what is, at root, a problem with race colorblindness. Consider first how some people make misleading and damaging assumptions about living in “safe,” predominantly White suburbs and believe active shooter drills and armed school safety officers make suburban White schools safer than city majority Black schools. From her research, sociologist Robin DiAngelo explains that “the whiter the space is, the more likely it is to be perceived as ‘good’ and ‘safe’ in the white mind” (Nice Racism, 2021, p. 9). But this belief is false and leaves parents, school boards, teachers, principals, and students in real danger without prudent safeguards.
Consider next that data about U.S. mass shootings gathered by Statista, a global data analysis company, indicate that Black spaces are no more dangerous than White spaces. Actually, more mass shooters are White than Black or Latino because the dominant race in the U.S. is White. The race of mass shooters is distributed by the racial demographics of the general population, not by the mythic increased criminality of people of color or perceived danger of the neighborhood or school. (https://www.statista.com/statistics/476456/mass-shootings-in-the-us-by-shooter-s-race/).
Finally, according to a recent study published in Pediatrics, the professional journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, “In schools perceived as safer, [non-Hispanic] white boys have been more likely to bring weapons into schools than [non-Hispanic] Black/African American or Hispanic boys in the past 20 years.” (Jewett, P. I., et al. Weapon Carrying Among Boys in U.S. Schools By Race and/or Ethinicity 2008-2019. Pediatrics, Vol. 148, Issue 1) Yet policies and procedures in majority White schools do not anticipate White male shooters, imagining White schools are safe and only Black or Brown schools or students are threatening.
These facts suggest that decision-makers in White communities are being distracted from sound school safety policy by mistaken beliefs about where danger lies. Raising any of the above questions would interrupt dangerous assumptions about the actual effectiveness of safety measures in place at schools like Oxford and expose the racial biases built into that world view. It is crucial to avoid color blindness, to challenge assumptions, and push to know how things are different for Black or Brown people. Otherwise, we miss and, perhaps, resist information that could save lives in schools and throughout society.
December 28, 2021