This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
When Otis Hackney, Philadelphia’s chief education officer, was in Amsterdam in the spring, he happened upon an exhibit detailing the history of apartheid. And in that exhibit, he saw a quote from one of its architects. It read:
"The Blacks should never see the greener pastures of education," Hackney recalled at a forum Thursday night.
As a black man who has dedicated his professional life to education — as a teacher, principal, and now city official — Hackney has thought a lot about the intersection of race and education. But rarely has the connection between the two seemed clearer to Hackney than it was in that quote.
"I said, ‘I just saw the scariest thing I’ve seen in my life,’" Hackney said.
His comments came amid an evening of frank talk on the plight and potential of black students in U.S. public schools. Hackney was among six panelists who gathered at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, on the border of Philadelphia and Cheltenham Township, for a talk titled "Courageous Conversations: Reimagining Race and Education." The event was one in a series of public discussions hosted by WHYY, WURD-AM, and Philadelphia Media Network (parent company of the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com).
The event’s location was significant for a couple of reasons. Philadelphia has a majority black school district, but so does Cheltenham Township. The latter drew major media coverage in May when a fight broke out among four African American students at the local high school.
The incident spawned some heated community conversations, many around race. Cheltenham District Superintendent Wagner Marseille said that some used the fight to "spew racially divisive rhetoric." After the fight, he said he received emails from community members asking him when he was "going to get rid of these animals."
Marseille believes it’s precisely those types of preconceptions that lead some black students to act out. Teachers, he said, are more likely to see African American students as threatening and recommend them for punishment. Counselors funnel talented black thinkers into lower-track classes or special education.
"We need to break the bigotry of low expectations," he said. And, he added, it was imperative that school districts stop "criminalizing behavior."