What Joe Biden and Ronald Reagan Can Teach Newtown About Hiring Teachers

The nomination (and later confirmation) of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the highly qualified judge who will soon be this country’s first Black woman to hold a seat on the Supreme Court, happened within the context of a lot of chatter. I won’t waste anyone’s time addressing the ridiculousness of “Do you think babies are racist?” and “What is the definition of a woman?” (collective eye roll inserted here!). But the cries of “It’s reverse racism!” and “We need the most qualified candidate, not affirmative action!” are worthy of discussion, particularly given that similar attitudes are being expressed in our nation’s schools, including here in Newtown. But let’s start with then-candidate Joe Biden’s promise to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court and the ensuing cries of “reverse racism” from the right (Reminder: Reverse racism isn’t “a thing”. There cannot be racism against an upper caste group, which in this country, is white people).

The protesting of Biden limiting the pool of SCOTUS candidates to Black females, carried a not-so-hidden belief with it: That the most qualified person to replace retiring Justice Breyer could not possibly be a Black woman; that we will not and can not find the most qualified person if we narrow the search to Black female judges. A second unspoken assumption is that a Black woman wouldn’t have a unique and valuable perspective to add to Supreme Court deliberations. Both of these arguments are wrong.

 In the 233 years that the Supreme Court has been in existence, all but eight justices have been white men. Let’s look at percentages: 93% of the justices have been white men; 96% of the justices have been men; 98% of the justices have been white (all but Justices Marshall, Thomas, and Sotomayor). Diversity on our courts is critical, primarily because it is nearly impossible to achieve justice without equal representation (This short article explains far better than I can the importance of having a diverse judiciary what-research-shows-about-importance-supreme-court-diversity). As of July 2020, 80% of sitting judges in our nation were white; only 9.8% were Black. Fifty-five percent of top state judges (most often called State Supreme Justices) are white male, even though that demographic only makes up 30% of the population. Eight percent of top state justices are men of color, although they make up 19% of the population. And 7% of top state justices are women of color, who compose 20% of our population. Our judiciary is simply not racially representative of our communities. When Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson becomes Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, it will be historic and important and, I hope, a catalyst for more change.

But what does this have to do with Newtown? The simple answer is that we have a representation problem in our schools. While 15% of Newtown students are BIPOC, only 3% of our teachers identify as such. As a resident who supports Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in our schools, I was concerned to see the following line recently removed from the Board of Education’s Affirmative Action policy. It read: “The Board directs the administration to set as a goal the recruitment, selection, and employment of qualified people among racial and ethnic minority groups”. It is my sincere hope that hiring Black, Indigenous, and other teachers of color remains a goal and priority of the Board. Diversity in our schools, among both students and staff, is just as important as diversity in the judiciary, and without it our children’s education, emotional well-being, and social development can suffer greatly. Students benefit from having qualified teachers of color and hiring such individuals should remain a priority for Newtown. A quick Google search turns up study after study suggesting a strong correlation between improved grades for students of color and those who have had teachers whose race and ethnicity reflect their own. This is in part because teachers of color are less likely to have implicit biases against these students and are more likely to see them as individuals capable of academic success (It’s not hard to understand how implicit bias is harmful to BIPOC who are tried in front of all-white juries and judges). These studies reveal that students of color also benefit in many other, less tangible ways by having teachers who look like them. But what about the white kids?

White students from predominantly white communities like ours, have also been shown to benefit from having educators who are more representative of our culturally diverse nation. By the year 2050, it is expected that there will be no ethnic majority in the United States. That means that young, white Newtowners are increasingly more likely to live in, and work in, more racially diverse spaces. Implicit biases and cultural stereotypes are a fact of life (for example, assuming that all Black men are athletic or aggressive or even violent). But “cross race exposure”, and specifically exposure during childhood, has been shown to decrease unconscious bias and stereotypes such as these. That research came out of a social neuroscience lab in Delaware, but studies from Harvard, Yale, even a meta-analysis of over 500 studies from participants in 38 countries, all point to similar conclusions. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? Once we know someone, whether they’re gay, Muslim, Black, or in a wheelchair, we stop lumping them into a group and we start seeing them as individuals. 

I love that Newtown is becoming more diverse! I see so many new and beautifully diverse faces at the grocery store. I see more women in town wearing the hijab. I occasionally even hear other languages spoken. Yes, Newtown is still predominantly white. Residential segregation and other social forces mean it will be many years before the halls of Newtown schools are as richly diverse as the streets of America’s cities. We can’t wave a magic wand and have more families of color appear in our neighborhoods. But we can prioritize the hiring of a racially diverse teaching staff. Just as Ronald Reagan pledged to put a woman on the Supreme Court and Joe Biden similarly pledged to seat a Black woman, Newtown’s superintendent can pledge to hire a more racially and culturally diverse teaching staff. If they do, it will be a gift that enriches the life of every Newtown student. Building relationships with teachers who are different from them will expand their minds and better prepare them to work in an interconnected, global world. By hiring more racially and culturally diverse teachers, our Superintendent and Board of Education can give Newtown children the opportunity to negate some of the implicit biases and stereotypes that develop when children are raised inside a cultural bubble.