“Racism is learned, it can be unlearned:” Black voices speak out at LBUSD Board meeting

Cover of the nonprofit Learning Policy Institute’s Sept. 2019 “Positive Outliers Case Study” indicating that though the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) is nationally recognized as “high functioning,” its suspension rates for African-American students is more than four times higher than for white students more than twice that of all students.

The Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) Board devoted most of its regular July 20 meeting to invited and public comments on addressing racial disparities, especially for Black students.

Several invited speakers– including educators, volunteers, city and school officials and a former student– shared perspectives and called on board members to correct imbalances that affect Black children in LBUSD schools and their families.

LBUSD serves more than 72,000 K-12 students across 85 schools, according to its website. Of those students, 57% are Hispanic, 12% Black, 12% White and 7% Asian.

Dr. Jill Baker, the incoming superintendent replacing Chris Steinhauser, said centering Black voices is of utmost importance, especially now as protests against police violence and other inequities roil the nation.

“The fight to end racism requires each and every one of us to take actions toward a more just and antiracist society,” she said. “As our entire community works to acknowledge, to listen, to convene and to catalyze, tonight is an opportunity to uplift the voices of our Black community.”

Felton Williams, outgoing president and representative of District 2.

Outgoing President of the board and School District 2 representative Dr. Felton Williams, said he asked 30 members of the Black community to share their perspectives during the meeting.

The first speaker, local activist Melissa Morgan, said she has worked with students and educators on bias and anti-bias training and the board should focus on Black students specifically because of ingrained institutional bias against them.

“Racism exits systemically and it impacts our young people here in Long Beach,” she said. “We need antiracist reforms to happen in our school district and we really need to address anti-Black sentiment.”

Morgan specifically called for hiring more Black teachers and support staff, adding Black Lives Matter to the curriculum and tracking Black student progress better.

Long Beach 8th -District Councilmember Al Austin, encouraged board members to be “even bolder” than they have been in their support of Black students.

Jerlene Tatum, a parent of LBUSD children, advocated that the board focus on the lack of engagement by African-American parents and the lack of effort by LBUSD to actively engage them.

“Our needs are different,” she said of Black parents. “One barrier is that our community is diverse from economic levels all the way to education levels.”

LBUSD staff also read dozens of emailed statements sent by the public after the board agreed to allocate an additional half hour to hearing them. Many had written– some in Spanish– to support a new agenda item: a resolution to adopt an Equity Policy.

Most public commenters advocated similar measures as Morgan and other invited speakers, including:
 Incorporate Black Lives Matter and ethnic studies into the curriculum to encourage cultural appreciation and offer perspective from the “other side” of a mostly white narrative in history and literature;
 Hire more Black teachers and staff to provide understanding and role models;
 Provide alternatives to school discipline and practice restorative and transformative justice to break the “school-to-prison pipeline”;
 Promote implicit-bias training;
 Promote equitable education in science, arts and physical education;
 Better address the needs of special-education and academically disadvantaged students;
 End contracts with school police and the Long Beach Police Department.

Equity policy
Following two-and-a-half hours of hearing these comments, and after conducting other business, the board unanimously adopted an Equity Policy resolution in a 5-0 vote. Baker said the policy calls for creation of a district equity-leadership team comprised of students, stakeholders, partners, teachers and administrators. The team will be tasked to make recommendations for policies, practices, funding and future initiatives.

The resolution follows the board’s inclusive-practices resolution adopted in 2019 and creation of an equity-design team consisting half of students and half teachers, administrators, and community members, Baker said.

Baker also said that, by next month, the district will finalize a Wallis Foundation-funded study on how it currently defines equity, with qualitative data from interviews with students, staff and others.

She added that while this is a time of reconciliation, acknowledgement, healing and change, equity has been a long-term district initiative developed over the past decade, during which the district has developed an ethnic-studies program and is addressing systemic inequities.

Outgoing board vice-president and District 3 representative Dr. Juan Benitez said he supported the Equity Policy to help dismantle institutional racism through budgeting policies.

“It also affirms that we are listening,” he said. “Equity is not just a word that we use or a mantra that we share, […] we take action through policies, through initiatives, through practices.” ​

Diana Craighead, incoming LBUSD Board President and representative of District 5 schools. (Via LBUSD)

District 1 board-member and incoming board vice-president Megan Kerr said there are multiple perspectives within the Black community, not just one, adding that eventually the board should also address changing school-building names.

“It’s about freedom, not reform,” Kerr said.

Incoming board president Diana Craighead represents District 5 which includes schools from Orange Ave. to the San Gabriel River and between Atherton St. and Candlewood Ave., said she appreciated the board’s deliberate and intentional approach to combatting the problem rather than a “kneejerk reaction” to the times. She also said the Equity Policy and other measures will help all students, not only African-Americans.

“It’s the tide that lifts all boats,” Craighead said.

Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) map. (Courtesy LBUSD)

Williams– the only Black member of the board– lamented that schools across the nation have continued for decades to see inequities, substandard education, high suspension rates, high dropout rates and substandard facilities for Black students.

Such conditions cause behavioral problems, stress, depression and ADHD in students as young as seven, he said, citing an article saying that students who feels discriminated by teachers feel less like they belong at school.

“These challenges are deeply embedded not only in our institutions but in individuals’ values and belief systems,” Williams said. “Physical barriers to racism can be eradicated but belief systems on race are much more difficult to change.”

He suggested that the equity-leadership team examine five years of data on African-American students, survey students and parents and find ways to engage unionized teachers to remove racial barriers in the classroom.

“Racism is learned,” Williams said. “It can be unlearned.”

The next regular LBUSD Board meeting will take place Wednesday, August 19.


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