Left Behind or Included?

Kids in a GardenAlthough I adore reading my printed newspaper each day, one of the fun features of a digital edition is the list of “most popular” or “most e-mailed” news stories. The 16th most-emailed article in today’s digital New York Times (lower on the list than articles about sunscreen, walking v. running and a seared tofu recipe, but higher than “The Wisdom of Bob Dole”) reads “Racial Diversity Efforts Ebb for Elite Careers, Analysis Finds.”

The article portrays a deeply concerning trend: a dearth of African-Americans in high-level professions and leadership positions. Here are just a few highlights:

  • The share of physicians and dentists who are black—about five percent—has not changed since 1990.
  • The share of lawyers who are minorities and women fell in 2010 for the first time since 1993.
  • Less than two percent of the nation’s Fortune 500 companies have black chief executives.

The article also features the Houston law firm of Thompson & Knight. Those of us who live outside of Texas may not realize that Houston is arguably the most racially diverse city in America. And Thompson & Knight has worked hard to recruit and retain African-American attorneys. Nonetheless, the firm employed 17 African-American attorneys in 2008 and only eight in 2013. 

As educators we must as ourselves the hard question: what are we doing to reverse this story? 

To be sure, independent and Episcopal schools have worked hard to make our schools more inclusive places for students, families, and teachers. Overall, the percentage of non-white students in independent schools has increased significantly in the last 30 years, from an average of 19 percent in 2001-2002 to 27 percent in 2012-2013.

At closer inspection, however, those increases are not all equal. The percentage of African-American students in independent schools has remained relatively constant, hovering between five and six percent for the same time period, despite the fact that African-Americans comprise 13% of the total U.S. population. Meanwhile, the enrollment of multiracial students has grown to six percent in 2012-2013 even though only 2.3 percent of the U.S. population identified themselves as such in the 2010 census. Similarly, Asian students represent 7.9% of enrolled students on average, greater than the total five percent of all Americans who identify as such. 

Of course, numbers like these must be taken with a grain of salt. They do not reflect the reality of any individual school. But they do identify a troubling concern that independent school folk know in their bones to be true: overall, independent schools, including Episcopal schools, must do a much better job recruiting, welcoming, and serving African-American students and their families. The New York Times article reflects the longer-term impact of our failure to do so.

A quality education remains the single best path to greater opportunity. Episcopal schools are known for their academic excellence. How many of us take pride in our college and ongoing school placement lists? We also have a larger mission and a higher purpose to welcome and serve all children, and many work tirelessly to make this a reality. But what can we do in our own school to break down the barriers, assumptions, and practices that keep us in this place: a persistent inequality that is intolerable? However hard, it is work Episcopal schools can and should be equipped to tackle with seriousness, energy, and commitment.