Chasing Ghosts: Racism in U.S. Education

Dr. Tracey A. Benson
4 min readFeb 28, 2024

“I am not sure we can publish this” said the white, male statistician on our research team. I tried to hide my distain for his sentiments by taking a long sip of my mocha lite, almond milk, cappuccino, while peering back at him through the screen of our Google Hangout. The “this” that he so easily dismissed was an article we had been working on about the cumulative negative effect of teacher assignment choices in K-8 schools for black and brown students. The third member of our team, a first-year international graduate student from Turkey, sat still, peering back at us through her laptop, seemingly immune from understanding the gravity of his statement. I tried, unsuccessfully, to intervene before he continued, as so many white educators ask when chasing ghosts about race in the United States, “Can we be sure this is even happening?”

Twelve hours before his words bespoke a silence lived by white America, an African-American friend of mine, a New York City corporate lawyer, had been ambushed by her daughter’s private middle school. Just days before her parent-teacher conference, she had run into one of her daughter’s teacher’s in the car line after school. With a smile and a kind gesture, the teacher invited my friend in for a parent-teacher conference, just to “check-in”. However, when she showed up for the friendly meeting, not aware in the slightest that this meeting would be better suited for two parents, not one, but three members of the school staff were waiting to tell her all about the mountain of evidence they had collected about how her African-American daughter was “spacy” and needed to be tested for a learning disability.

As an African-American parent of an African-American high school boy and a former teacher and high school principal, I’ve bared witness to how unyielding and relentless racism steals the souls of black and brown students in U.S. schools. These experiences, these Ghosts — so often unresearched, unrecognized, unvalidated — rob students’ will to persevere and sap their very humanity and dignity. Passing ghosts like a high school assistant principal threatening my son with arrest for horseplay in the hallway, or his 7th grade teacher intimidating him into reporting a racist incident even though he just wanted to let it go, or my friend being confronted by a team of teachers deciding for her that her black daughter should be tested for a learning disability. “Can we be sure this is happening at all?”

Yes, this is happening, not only today, but tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. The barrage of racism absorbed by our vulnerable black and brown students at the hands of our system of education is astounding. However, research focusing on validating their daily, monthly, and yearly lived experiences in schools is abysmal. Researchers are more interested in building strawmen about the “achievement gap” that blame students, families, and communities for school failures and preserve the sainthood of racist educators at the expense of the very lives of “those kids.” Trauma Informed Practices, Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, and Restorative Justice are the bricks-and-mortar of the necropolis that hold the souls of black and brown students. These popular practices are the gargoyles that attempt to blind us from seeing the racism embedded in the foundations of American education.

What if these ghosts were real, studied, and revealed? How do we bring W.E.B. Dubois’s “double-consciousness” of living as an American and an American of color into one consciousness that all American’s benefit from understanding? The ghosts we chase in research are the daily experiences of Black and Brown students throughout the United States. So, the question is not “How can we be sure this is happening at all?” but “How do we study what is happening?”; burning strawmen, catching ghosts, and excising our demons.

My recent co-authored book sheds light on our demons who hide in the dark. Centuries of legalized racism and oppression of people of color in our society continues to permeate every institution in the United States. People of color, specifically African-Americans, Latinos, and Southeast Asian communities, have less access to quality healthcare, sustainable employment, and, yes, high-quality schooling. And, even when students from these populations attend “high-quality” (which is a proxy for predominantly-white, middle- to upper-class) schools, the racism in the curriculum, procedures, and the very people we’ve entrusted to educate our children scratch and claw at their very humanity.

Our work does not provide all the answers to our deep dark history of racism in the U.S. What it does do is trouble the waters and challenge narratives that pervasive racism in our schools can be solved with school choice, extended school days, and high-stakes testing. Without addressing the racism embedded in everything we know to be schooling, we are doomed to continue to mis-educate our students of color.



Dr. Tracey A. Benson

Anti-Racist Education Leadership Consultant & Founder of Tracey A. Benson Constulting