The Illusion of Meritocracy in Schooling, Part 2 | A Long Repentance Post #9 | The Anástasis Center for Christian Education & Ministry: Sangwon Yang & Mako Nagasawa


The Purpose of A Long Repentance Blog Series

People talk about issues of race and justice in the United States as issues of ‘justice and injustice.’  Sometimes we launch into debates about ‘the proper role of government.’  But is that the original framework from which these issues were asked and debated?

The purpose of the blog post series called A Long Repentance: Exploring Christian Mistakes About Race, Politics, and Justice in the United States is to remind our readers that these issues began as Christian heresies.  They were at variance from Christian beliefs prior to colonialism.  Since Christians enacted and institutionalized what we believe to be heretical ideas, they were very destructive and harmful, then as now.  And we bear a unique responsibility for them.  As a result, we believe we must engage in a long repentance.  We must continue to resist the very heresies that we put into motion.  Thus the title of this blog series, A Long Repentance.  The journey is long and challenging.  It may be impossible to see the end.  But along the way, it is also inspiring and sometimes breathtaking.

We also encourage you to explore this booklet, A Long Repentance: A Study Guide, for further reflections and discussion questions.

In Post #2 and Post #5, we explored how white American Protestants promoted the heretical view of Genesis 1 taught by John Locke, that the productive can take land/property from the unproductive.   Also setting themselves up for deep anxiety, they also maintained that the social system they set up was fair and ‘meritocratic’ – as opposed to blatantly racist.  They tended to believe that their ‘individual success’ was the result of their ‘personal hard work’ in the ‘private market.’  White Americans even hid from themselves the fact that they used massive government intervention to set up a deeply unequal and racialized social system that continues to this day.  In Post #6 and Post #7, we explored the racialized housing system.  In Post #8, we started exploring the school system which inherits the problems of racialized housing.


Schools Don’t Discipline Students Fairly and Equally

“If schools were fair,” said Brian, “then they would not only have equal opportunities to all students to learn and succeed, they would discipline students fairly and constructively.  But they don’t.  When people try to save money in education, by either having a ‘for-profit mindset’ or by cutting public school funds, they widen the school-to-prison pipeline.”

“What exactly is the school-to-prison pipeline?” asked Michaela.

“It’s how some students are disciplined by schools in a way where they are pushed further down the road to prison.  If higher-ups want to make money by skimping on staff and space, the more they will outsource school discipline ultimately to the criminal justice system.”

“Can you substantiate that?” asked Michaela.  “That’s a big claim.  We want schools to be safe for kids who want to learn, right?”

“Sure,” replied Brian.  “Let’s start with facilities.[1]  Wealthier schools often have extra rooms in the building.  Teachers can send difficult students there to sit for a while.  But poorer schools don’t have extra space, or extra staff, like social workers.”

“I follow,” said Michaela.  “So those schools use out-of-school suspensions more?  And you’re saying that black students are disciplined more heavily than white students?”

“Yes,” said Brian.  “Black children make up 18 percent of preschoolers, but make up nearly half of all out-of-school suspensions.[2]  That’s suspensions of 4 year olds.  Black students in K-12 were nearly four times more likely as white students to be suspended or expelled,[3] which is up from three times in 2011 – 2012.[4]  And parents aren’t going to be able to pick up all that slack.  Does every student have a parent just waiting at home, just in case?  In families with kids 18 and under, 62% of married couples have both parents working.[5]  Probably close to 100% of single parents work.”

“It seems that around 80% of teachers are white,”[6] said Michaela, “Are you saying that a lot of white teachers are racist?”

“I’m saying,” Brian replied, “that without training, white teachers might interpret black children differently than they do white children.  Black kids are often interpreted as older than they actually are.  Non-black teachers then view them as less innocent than white kids, and hold them more accountable.[7]  Also, some black children learn from their families to talk – maybe even interrupt adults – to express that they’re learning something.  But white teachers might interpret that as talking out of turn.”

“So it’s a cultural issue?” asked Michaela.

“At that age, sure,” said Brian.  “That’s why training teachers in cultural competence and implicit bias is effective.[8]  And training is important because about half of America’s public schools do not employ even one teacher of color, compared with 49% of students being of color.”[9]

“Okay.  And for older students?” asked Michaela.

“Teachers at that level need even more training.  Schools need funding which they are usually denied.  Look at how North Carolina used out-of-school suspensions for white and black students.”[10]


“Wow,” said Michaela.  “Clearly something is going on.”

Schools and the Criminal Justice System

“Sadly, yes,” said Brian.  “Or, look at Missouri, where St. Louis ranks as the fifth most segregated city in the nation.[11]  Public schools inherit the racial dynamics.”

“How so?” asked Michaela.

Brian replied, “At the elementary school level, Missouri had the widest discipline gap between black and white students.  In 2015, for white students, Missouri was on par with the national average:  They suspended 2 out of every 100 students.  But for black students, they suspended 12.5 more.[12]  Then, in January of 2017, Missouri got even tougher.  They passed a state-wide law which made fights between students, on school buses or school grounds, no longer minor offenses or misdemeanors.  Those kids “will be charged with a felony and arrested, regardless of their age or grade level.”[13]  That’s pretty draconian.  And something tells me that it’s not going to be evenly enforced.”

“No,” said Michaela.  “Probably not.  I just read that black students are 41% of the Minneapolis school district, but make up 76% of the suspensions.[14]  What you’re saying gives more texture to why that is.”

Brian said, “In fact, across the nation, no matter what the form of punishment, black students get more of it, no matter what grade[15]:


Brian added, “Even the American Bar Association points out that the school-to-prison pipeline is devastating for all youth, but especially for black and brown students.[16]  In Spring Valley High School in Columbus, South Carolina, after white deputy Ben Fields threw a black female student to the ground, and videos of the incident went viral, journalist Amanda Ripley wrote in The Atlantic:

“At least 22 states and dozens of cities and towns currently outlaw school disturbances in one way or another. South Dakota prohibits “boisterous” behavior at school, while Arkansas bans “annoying conduct.” Florida makes it a crime to “interfere with the lawful administration or functions of any educational institution”—or to “advise” another student to do so. In Maine, merely interrupting a teacher by speaking loudly is a civil offense, punishable by up to a $500 fine.”

The November 2016 article was entitled, “How America Outlawed Adolescence.”

But there are hopeful counterexamples.  For example, Baltimore’s Superintendent Andres Alonso brought down suspensions from 26,000 to 10,000, and graduation rates rose.”[17]

“Well,” said Michaela, “I guess after all that bad news, that’s encouraging.”

Affirmative Action – For Whom?

After a bit more conversation, Brian said, “Michaela, let me come back to your original disagreement with affirmative action.  So, you feel that colleges shouldn’t use race as a criteria for admission, right?”

“I did say that,” said Michaela.

“There may be different ways of doing affirmative action,”[18] said Brian.  “But can you acknowledge that our system already has “affirmative action,” in a sense, starting from pre-school?  It’s for white people.  Not all white people, certainly.  But our system was primarily designed for wealthy white kids in white neighborhoods, by law.  It continues to work that way, by default, all the way through legacy admissions [see footnote above].  Even David Brooks, the conservative commentator, acknowledges that neighborhood and zip code makes a big difference.[19]  So if you’re upset about affirmative action in colleges and universities, then you should be ten times more upset about how the system is dysfunctional starting from pre-school.  Because what is the impact?  An 18 year old college-bound and qualified white student who gets turned away from one particular college will almost certainly make it into another.  But a 6 year old black or brown kid who is in a classroom with 30 other kids and a stressed-out teacher in a tough neighborhood?  What alternatives will that kid have?  Can you really maintain that white students today face more discrimination than students of color?  On the issue of learning opportunities, that’s not true.  Nor is it true on the issue of school discipline.  We Americans like to claim that the school system is “meritocratic.”  We claim that schools treat kids fairly.  But in light of all this evidence, can you honestly say that our school system is actually fair?”

Brian added, “And, that’s not even mentioning how wealthy white parents can afford private schools, prep schools, tutoring, extracurriculars, SAT prep classes, and who knows what.  Do all kids have a quiet place to study?  Do all kids get to come home and not worry about their next meal?  Just the exposure to other adult coaches and music instructors and tutors is likely to make a difference, too.  But funding for those roles dries up quickly, too.  I’m not saying that remedies to these inequalities are simple.  But I am saying that the American school system is not a “meritocracy.”  Schools inherit, and share in, all the problems of our race-based segregation in housing.  Let me read you this from journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who focuses on education.”

“Segregation in housing is the way you can accomplish segregation in every aspect of life. Housing segregation means that certain jobs are located in certain communities, that certain grocery stores are located in certain communities; it determines where parks are located, if streets are repaired, if toxic dump sites are built nearby. Segregation accomplishes so many other inequalities because you effectively contain a population to a geographic area and suddenly all the other civil rights law don’t matter.

We don’t have to discriminate if we’re living in totally segregated neighborhoods; all the work is already done. If you look at the history of civil rights legislation, it’s the Fair Housing laws that get passed last — and barely so. Dr. King had to get assassinated in order for it to get passed, and that was because it was considered the Northern civil rights bill. It was civil rights made personal; it was determining who would live next door to you and therefore who would be able to share the resources that you received. The same is true of school desegregation.

Education and housing are the two most intimate areas of American life, and they’re the areas where we’ve made the least progress. And we believe that schools are the primary driver of opportunity, and white children have benefited from an unequal system. And why is this so? Why have white people allowed this? Because it benefited them to have it that way.”[20]

For further reflections and discussion questions, see the Study Guide.


[1] National Association of Secondary School Principals, “Facilities,”, notes,

“Unfortunately, very little national data exists about school-building conditions or funding for school modernization and repair. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (then called the General Accounting Office) last released a report in April 1995 on school facilities. It found that more than 8 million students attended schools with poor air quality; 12 million students attended schools in need of new roofs or roof upgrades; and 12 million students attended schools with inadequate plumbing. A report released in 2016 by the 21st Century School Fund, Inc., the U.S. Green Building Council, Inc., and the National Council on School Facilities estimates that the United States “should be spending about $145 billion per year to maintain, operate, and renew facilities so that they provide healthy and 21st-century learning environments for all children.” However, districts are struggling to finance school modernization and repair efforts while also managing rising enrollments and the need for new school construction. Only five states (CO, CT, KY, MA, and OH) cover a majority of districts’ capital construction costs, 12 states provide no direct support, and the level of support varies in the remaining 33 states. The federal government only contributes minimal funding for school facilities, mostly through grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency following a national disaster.”

[2] Code Switch: Race and Identity, Remixed, “Black Preschoolers Far More Likely To Be Suspended,” National Public Radio, March 21, 2014; citing Civil Rights Data Collection, “Data Snapshot: School Discipline, Issue Brief No.1,” U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, March 2014;

[3] Emma Brown, “New Federal Civil Rights Data Show Persistent Racial Gaps in Discipline, Access to Advanced Coursework”, Washington Post, June 7, 2016;; see U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, Securing Equal Educational Opportunity: Report to the President and Secretary of Education 2016;

[4] Joy Resmovits, “American Schools Are Still Racist, Government Report Finds”, Huffington Post, March 21, 2014;

[5] Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment Characteristics of Families – 2017”; U.S. Department of Labor, April 19, 2018;

[6] National Association of Secondary School Principals, “Educator Diversity,” notes,

“In the 2015–16 school year, only 20 percent of public school teachers identified as individuals of color, which is a 4 percent increase from a similar survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Education in 2000. The most recent demographic data on school principals is from the 2011–12 school year, which found that only 20 percent were individuals of color, including 10 percent who identified as black and 7 percent who identified as Hispanic. Recent reports also indicate that almost half of America’s schools do not employ even one teacher of color, meaning that many students are taught and led by educators who do not share similar backgrounds or experiences.  Students of color made up 49 percent of public school students nationwide in 2012, and the National Center for Education Statistics predicts this population will increase to 56 percent by 2024.”

[7] Philip Goff, Matthew Jackson, Brooke Allison, Lewis Di Leone, Carmen Culotta, and Natalie Ann DiTomasso, “Black Boys Viewed as Older, Less Innocent Than Whites, Research Finds,” American Psychological Association, March 6, 2014;; discussed by German Lopez, “Black Kids Are Way More Likely to Be Punished in School Than White Kids, Study Finds,” Vox, April 5, 2018;

[8] American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force, “Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools?” American Psychologist, (2008) 63, p.852 – 862 finds,

“When applied correctly, effective classroom management principles can work across all subject areas and all developmental levels (Brophy, 2006) They can be expected to promote students’ self-regulation, reduce the incidence of misbehavior, and increase student productivity.”

E. Green, “Can Good Teaching Be Learned?” New York Times Magazine, March 7, 2010, p.30 – 46 finds that teachers can learn effective classroom management.  J. Brophy, “Teacher Influences on Student Achievement,” American Psychologist (1986), 41, p.1069 – 1077.  See also J. Brophy, “History of Research on Classroom Management,” in C. M. Evertson & C. S. Weinstein (editors), Handbook of Classroom Management: Research, Practice, and Contemporary Issues (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006), p.17 – 43.

[9] National Association of Secondary School Principles, “Educator Diversity.”  See footnote 6, above.

[10] Daniel J. Losen and Jonathan Gillespie, “Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School,” The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at The Civil Rights Project / Proyecto Derechos Civiles, August 2012, p.33;

[11] Nate Silver, “The Most Diverse Cities Are Often The Most Segregated,” FiveThirtyEight, May 1, 2015;; see also Daniel Marans and Mariah Stewart, “Why Missouri Has Become The Heart Of Racial Tension In America,” Huffington Post, November 16, 2015;

[12] Daniel Losen, Cheri Hodson, Michael A. Keith II, Katrina Morrison, and Shakti Belway, “Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap?” The Center for Civil Rights Remedies, February 2015, p.17; find,

“At 12.5 more Black elementary students than White elementary students suspended per every 100 enrolled, Missouri’s Black-White discipline gap was the widest in the nation at the elementary level, and it also had the highest Black elementary suspension rate of any state. It is worth noting that Missouri schools had White elementary suspension rates on a par with the national average for all students.  Moreover, Black elementary students in Missouri are suspended at higher rates than the state’s White secondary school students.”

[13] Monique Judge, “New Mo. Statute Ensures Children Are Fed Into School-to-Prison Pipeline,” The Root, December 21, 2016;

[14] Erica L. Green, “Why Are Black Students Punished So Often? Minnesota Confronts a National Quandary,” New York Times, March 18, 2018;

[15] German Lopez, “Black Kids Are Way More Likely to Be Punished in School Than White Kids, Study Finds,” Vox, April 5, 2018;

[16] Sarah E. Redfield and Jason P. Nance, “School-to-Prison Pipeline,” American Bar Association, February 2016; cf. Tom Loveless, “Racial Disparities in School Suspensions,” Brookings Institution, March 24, 2017;

[17] Daniel J. Losen and Jonathan Gillespie, “Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School,” The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at The Civil Rights Project / Proyecto Derechos Civiles, August 2012, p.35; write,

“Even in districts with a history of high suspension rates. In the Baltimore public schools, for example, recent reforms put in place by Superintendent Andres Alonso illustrate one such alternative policy. As reported in the New York Times:

“Alonso took on the culture of the schools, which relied heavily on suspensions for discipline, a practice Dr. Alonso strongly opposed. “Kids come as is,” he likes to say, “and it’s our job to engage them.” Under Alonso’s new policies suspensions fell below 10,000, far fewer than the 26,000 the system gave out in 2004.”

“During this period of declining suspension rates, graduation rates in Baltimore rose. The Baltimore example suggests that alternatives to out-of-school suspension may prove effective in creating school communities that are more productive and inclusive. Moreover, there is research evidence suggesting that there are many effective alternatives that promote safe and orderly schools and reduce delinquency—while also keeping students in school.”

Losen and Gillespie list three techniques:  (1) Systemwide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports; (2) Social and Emotional Strategies; and (3) Restorative Justice Practices.  They cite Sabrina Tabernise, “A Mission to Transform Baltimore’s Beaten Schools,” New York Times, December 1, 2010;  See also Carly Berwick, “Zeroing Out Zero Tolerance,” The Atlantic, March 17, 2015;  See also Emily Morgan, Nina Salomon, Martha Plotkin, Rebecca Cohen, “The School Discipline Consensus Report: Strategies from the Field to Keep Students Engaged in School and Out of the Juvenile Justice System,” Justice Center: The Council of State Governments, 2014;

[18] Public colleges and universities only look at an applicant’s race after they’ve decided that two students perform at the same level, in order to foster a diverse student body.  Private colleges have the right to weight diversity more heavily, but in practice do much of the same.  Victoria M. Massie, “White Women Benefit Most From Affirmative Action – And Are Among Its Fiercest Critics,” Vox, June 23, 2016,, writes,

“Yet it’s a widespread assumption that even Justice Antonin Scalia brought to the fore last December during oral arguments for the Fisher case. He asserted that affirmative action hurts African-American students by putting them in elite institutions they are not prepared for. Study after study shows there’s simply no evidence for the claim.”

See links for the studies.  Admissions might also weigh family wealth and income as heavily as, or more than, race, because race alone might not serve the goal of diversity; for that, see Richard D. Kahlenberg, “Affirmative Action Fail: The Achievement Gap by Income Is Twice the Gap by Race,” The New Republic, April 27, 2014;

We must also remember that legacy admissions is a form of affirmative action, largely reserved for white people.  See Daniel Golden, The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges – And What Gets Left Outside the Gates (2nd edition 2009).  At a national level, a relatively simple study by Naviance using ACT or SAT scores shows that 18% of legacy admissions are below the 50th percentile; see Scott Jaschik, “Quantifying the Advantage for Legacy Applicants,” Inside Higher Ed, Aug 21, 2017;  Ester Bloom, “Trump Is Going After Affirmative Action But That’s Not the Problem with College Admissions – This Is,” CNBC, Aug 3, 2017; notes:

“In one famous instance, resurfaced this week by Vox and originally put forward in Daniel Golden’s 2007 book “The Price of Admission,” Jared Kushner’s wealthy father pulled every string he could reach to get his son into Harvard: He called two senators to whom he had donated to have them call the Ivy League school on his son’s behalf, and he directly pledged a gift of $2.5 million. On his own merits, Jared would not have gotten in, since he lacked both top grades and SAT scores: “Margot Krebs, who was director of Frisch’s college preparatory program at the time, said, ‘Jared was certainly not anywhere near the top of his class,'” Golden recounts.”

Bloom also notes:

“Abigail Fisher, who famously sued the University of Texas-Austin for race-based discrimination, was actually shown to have been bumped out of contention not by affirmative action candidates but by other white students. In her suit, Fisher maintained that she was passed over for admission while others with worse grades were let in. But investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones pointed out that the vast majority of those students who succeeded where Fisher failed were also Caucasian. “It’s true that the university, for whatever reason, offered provisional admission to some students with lower test scores and grades than Fisher,” Hannah-Jones writes. “Five of those students were black or Latino. Forty-two were white.” She adds that there were “168 black and Latino students with grades as good as or better than Fisher’s who were also denied entry into the university that year.””

Many types of college sports can also be considered affirmative action for white students; see for example Saahil Desai, “College Sports is Affirmative Action for Rich White Students,” The Atlantic, Oct 23, 2018;

[19] David Brooks, “A Sensible Version of Donald Trump,” New York Times, October 27, 2015; cites Raj Chetty’s study on the impact of neighborhoods and peer groups; see also Harvard Magazine, “Raj Chetty and Colleagues Release Controversial Education Study,” Harvard Magazine, January 18, 2012;

[20] Sean Illing, “Schools Are Segregated Because White People Want Them That Way,” Vox, October 26, 2017;

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