Tokenism the Role and Experiences of Minority Teachers in Predominantly White Schools Term Paper

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Tokenism: The Role and Experiences of Minority Teachers in Predominantly White Schools

The Problem and Its Setting

Anticipated Findings

The past generation has seen the integration of America's public schools. Such integration has presented challenges and opportunities not only for the Minority students now enrolled in predominantly White schools, but also for the Minority teachers who find themselves assigned to those same schools. While opening up new horizons for many Minority educators, the purposeful placing of Minorities in majority White schools has also raised the issue of tokenism. The question remains as to whether these Minority teachers are being treated equally with their White counterparts, and whether their assignment to mostly White schools is based upon real ability and genuine need, or whether such assignments are merely reflective of well-meaning social policy gone awry. Many capable Minority teachers find themselves to be victims of the same sort of discrimination that the system of school integration purports to prevent, their abilities and talents wasted in what is little more than a multicultural and multiethnic "show." This paper will discuss the experiences of these Minority teachers, and also attempt an evaluation of their situation with an eye toward providing recommendations regarding the widespread practice of Minority teacher integration in predominantly White schools.

Tokenism: The Role and Experiences of Minority Teachers in Predominantly White Schools

I. The Problem and Its Setting


It was only yesterday that segregation reigned supreme across much of the United States. Throughout the South, Black students attended Black schools, and White Students attended White schools. In general, these "separate but equal" institutions were nothing of the kind. Black schools were underfunded and understaffed. Standards and expectations were often significantly lower than those in place in White schools. Blacks taught Blacks and Whites taught Whites, an arrangement that suited a White-controlled society in which the color of a person's skin was the determining factor in his choice of career, his social and economic status, and even his right to express himself politically.

Everything changed, however, as a result of the Civil Rights Movement and the calls made for justice and change by such outstanding spokesmen for human rights as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a host of other political and social activists. Jim Crow was abolished, and schools across America were desegregated. Judges all over the country ordered the busing of school-age children to schools that were often far from their homes. The aim was to create schools with student populations that reflected the genuine racial and ethnic make-up of America and of its local communities. From now on, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other Minorities would learn side by side with Whites.

Yet, the aim of an integrated society in which all races and ethnic groups shared equally in the promises of American democracy could not be created simply by the establishment of a multiracial and multicultural student body. The educators themselves would have to come from different backgrounds as well. Only a Minority teacher could be expected to bring a true Minority perspective to the classroom. Only a Minority teacher could serve as an example of the good that education could accomplish for Minorities. The issue then, was one of finding appropriate role models for the new integrated society. Minority instructors would serve as an example to White Students of the good that Minorities could do, and of the positive contributions they could make to society. They would be authority figures who would demonstrate that knowledge and talent were colorblind. And for Minority students, they would serve an additional purpose - that of demonstrating to these youths the fact that a person with the same background as themselves could achieve all that their White brothers and sisters could achieve.

The Problem

This at least, was the theory. All too often unfortunately, these attempts at the integration of faculty and staff were only half-hearted, and involved little more than the sprinkling of a few Black or Hispanic faces among a lily-white cadre of educators. While most acute in districts with little Minority student representation, a related problem afflicted predominantly Minority schools as well. Since integration of students could only take place within the boundaries of actual school districts, the plan to create reasonably diverse student bodies failed in localities that were either largely White, or largely Black or Hispanic. Furthermore, the announcement of a plan to bus Minority children to previously White schools generally served as a clarion call to White parents to move their children out of the public school system altogether. In many large cities - cities that contained large populations of both Minorities and Whites - White students left the public school system in droves. The following table (Fig.1) illustrates the strikingly high numbers of Black and Latino students who continue to attend highly segregated schools, that is, schools in which they - the Minorities - comprise the great majority of the student population:

Percentage of African-American and Latino Students Attending

Predominantly Minority and 90-100% Minority Schools

Predominantly Minority

90-100% Minority









Fig 1. (Massey and Denton, 2000)

Note that these numbers remain high despite more than thirty years of busing and similar attempts at integration. And, according to a recent speech by First Lady, Laura Bush, "About 42% of all public schools in the United States have no Minority teachers. The percentage of Minority teachers is expected to shrink to an all-time low of 5%, while 41% of American students will be Minorities." (Bush, 2002)

The problems inherent in these figures are obvious. Many American students, both White and Minority, have little or no exposure to Minority instructors. Such a glaring lack of diversity on the instructional level means a gross lack of multicultural and multiracial exposure for the vast majority of students, and also a glaring absence of appropriate role models, in particular, for African-American and Latino children. Whites too, grow up thinking that only Whites are qualified to hold such positions of trust and authority, positions that require substantial amounts of education and training. Furthermore, for the small number of Minority teachers in America's public schools, the problem is one of isolation coupled with a feeling of purposelessness and frustration.

Significance of Study

Based upon the above evidence regarding the vast disparities between the numbers of Minority students on the one hand, and the numbers of Minority teachers on the other, it is essential to determine if these disparities do indeed give rise to the problems described. Minority instructors were assigned to White schools for the specific purpose of achieving a fully integrated educational environment, one in which both students and faculty would benefit from exposure to persons of different races, and cultural backgrounds. However, the current situation, in which Minority teachers are grossly underrepresented as compared to their White counterparts, gives rise to several concerns. First among these, is the question of whether students, be they White, Black, Latino, or Asian, actually benefit from having a handful of Minority role models? Do the White students obtain any advantage from their exposure to Minority instructors, noting especially that these instructors are very few in number? Do the Minority teachers themselves feel that they are making a positive contribution to the education and to the general social and intellectual development of their students, both Minority and Non-Minority? And last, but certainly not least, do Minority teachers feel that they are genuinely accepted by their White peers? In other words, do they believe themselves to be a legitimate part of the school fabric, and are they perceived as such by White faculty?

Integration slammed black teachers, as well as students, into white schools with white colleagues and administrators who often saw their new colleagues as somehow inferior, and waited for them to fail. Concurrently, black teachers faced white parents who could not conceive of their children being taught by a black person. There was little of the casual exchange in teachers' lounges that often amounts to a teacher training system and source of support to go on after a bad day. Administrators, ordered to make integration succeed, or at least quiet, were reluctant to make constructive criticism and felt unable to engage disciplinary measures. The black community correctly saw black teachers as the sole model for black kids, and sometimes the only understanding allies a black child could find in a fundamentally hostile environment. And in that environment, where in many circles it is still quietly understood by white people that blacks will never measure up, the presence of black teachers serves both as a defense and a constant reminder that someone nearby just might react sharply to racist comments. (Gibson, 1992)

This study will focus on such attitudes as these to determine the extent to which they are true. And, should it be discovered that these attitudes, are indeed generally held, then it shall explore the consequences of these attitudes for Minority faculty and the perceived effects of these attitudes on their respective teaching…

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