The Cautionary Tale of a White Supremacist Principal

The story of a white supremacist principal in charge of a charter school whose student body is mostly African-American is the kind of horror story that sits with me. It’s the kind of story that requires some time and analysis to move through the layers of the question of how this happened. In the past few weeks, I’ve read through news stories and commentaries about Nicholas Dean, the principal of Crescent Leadership Academy who was fired after his participation at a pro-confederate monuments rally led to revelations of possible ties to white supremacist organizations. While his involvement in any organized effort at Nazism or white supremacy may be inconclusive, his ideology of white supremacy is certain. His participation on a “White Genocide” podcast alone is clarifying. And it’s scary. Thinking of him as an authority figure, a disciplinarian, perhaps even a role model to young students of color sends a shiver down my spine.

I’ve never met Nicholas Dean, but I’ve heard of him and knew of him simply because his school was flagged on my list of sixteen New Orleans schools that have excessively high suspension rates. Suspending 51% of the student population in 2014-2015 was beyond excessively high, as the state average is 14%. But some of my colleagues had assured me that the numbers were mitigated by the fact that his school, Crescent Leadership Academy, is an alternative school for at-risk students.

I’m not so sure now, and I regret not paying more attention to this red flag. But in all likelihood, no one would have listened anyway. No one has listened while many Black residents of New Orleans have been predicting this, or at least warning against this for years now. Go to any Monday night meeting with the local activist organization Justice and Beyond and someone likely will tell you she saw this coming. Some education activists have been questioning the cultural competency of the influx of White charters school administrators and teachers since it started—since the flood and the firing of 7,000 teachers, most of whom were Black. Since then, the percent of Black teachers has decreased from 71 to 49 percent. Young White newcomers with programs like Teach for America have replaced them.

Moreover, to understand the full context, one must look at the way education reform has been enacted. In meetings, conferences, blogs, and even casual conversations, someone will tell you that while just about everybody wanted improvements in schools prior to and after the flood, the charter school movement disenfranchised and disengaged the communities they purportedly sought to serve. Advocates have been expressing outrage that it was enacted without community leadership, engagement, or buy-in, and without respect for culture. One community activist likened the situation to colonialism.

While that may be an extreme view, the takeaway is the underlying concerns of implicit bias in education reform, including the concerns about administrators and teachers. In all likelihood, many of these White school leaders and educators have some degree of implicit bias in favor of whiteness. It might be helpful to remember that implicit bias affects our attitudes and behaviors unconsciously and involuntarily. They can override our conscious, stated beliefs and commitments, such as the good intention of helping in an underserved community. The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity highlighted some studies that showed that implicit bias in education leads to disproportionate disciplining of students of color, perceptions that students of color and their parents are disconnected from the education process, and lower expectations of success.

Yet, when I’ve seen Black parents and advocates share these concerns at meetings, policymakers dismiss them as ‘using the race card.’ They don’t want them questioning the ethos of these institutions. Like most discussions about race, the conversation doesn’t go very far without feelings of defensiveness and anger shutting it down. The media is just as culpable. For the most part, only a narrative of the success of education reform is being spread throughout the country, without much attention to the most high-risk communities that have shown little to no improvement. The Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education found that “the New Orleans reforms have created a set of schools that are highly stratified by race, class, and educational advantage.” The cries and concerns of low-income and communities of color have gone mostly unheard by policymakers and the news media.

In contrast, a couple of weeks later after Dean was fired from his school, several media outlets published articles and video of him defending himself. As a woman of color, whose voice often goes ignored and unheard, this privilege did not go unnoticed. This felt like a slap in the face to the advocates, parents, teachers, and students of color who for years have been warning about the detrimental effects of racism and implicit bias in education reform. It was a disheartening reminder of how far we have to go in reaching equity. But I always look for a silver lining, and in this case, I believe it’s the opportunity to have an authentic conversation about race and the racial biases administrators and teachers bring into a classroom. Since the voices of so many advocates have not been enough, I’m hoping that the cautionary tale of Nicholas Dean will make us pay more attention.

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