Four Narratives to Avoid when Advocating for Immigrants

In an era of heightened xenophobia, those of us who work in educational linguistics have often found ourselves on the forefront of debates related to immigration. As I have participated in some of these debates I have noticed the reliance on certain tropes that may have unintended consequences. Some of these tropes may even offer tools for anti-immigrant activists to further advance their own agendas. Below I discuss each of them in turn.

The exceptional immigrant narrative. The exceptional immigrant narrative seeks to defend immigrants by sharing the stories of talented immigrants who have overcome great odds to become successful professionals. The desire to celebrate these amazing people is certainly understandable. However, this can easily fall into a “good” versus “bad” immigrant dichotomy that can be mobilized by anti-immigrant forces to promote their racist agenda. This can be seen by recent efforts by the Republican party to connect the renewal of DACA with funds to build a wall on the Mexican border. In this scenario, DACA recipients are framed as “good” immigrants deserving of inclusion in US society while the majority of Mexicans (including many parents of DACA recipients) are framed as “bad” immigrants who are a social threat. To avoid this pitfall it behooves those of us committed to advocating for immigrants to continue to point out that US citizens do not need advanced degrees to be treated with dignity and respect and that this should also be the case for immigrants regardless of their immigration status.

The immigrants as commodity narrative. The immigrants as commodity narrative focuses on the contributions of immigrants to the US economy. As with the exceptional immigrant narrative it is certainly understandable to want to utilize this narrative in response to claims that immigrants are supposedly a drain on the US economy. Yet, also like the exceptional immigrant narrative this too can easily fall into a “good” versus “bad” immigrant dichotomy. It is also completely dehumanizing to treat people as commodities regardless of how positively you are trying to frame them. The implication of this argument is that immigrants are only deserving of basic human rights if they are economically productive as defined in extremely narrow ways. But that’s not how human rights should work. Everybody is deserving of dignity and respect simply because they are human.

The nation of immigrants narrative. The nation of immigrants narrative claims that everybody in the US has immigrant roots and that this means our country should be more tolerant of the current wave of immigrants. The problem with this is that it is not true. Indigenous people lived on the lands that are currently called the United States for thousands of years before a group of European settlers decided to create a new country here. In addition, Africans were forcefully brought to the United States as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It can be difficult to bring up all of these historical details within every immigration debate we may find ourselves in. That said, there are easy ways of framing the issue in a way that doesn’t erase this history. For example, instead of saying “we are a nation of immigrants” an alternative could be to say “we are a nation with a long history of racial oppression as well as an equally long history of resistance to this oppression.” This both avoids the erasure of settler colonialism and slavery while also highlighting the history of resistance that contemporary immigrant rights activists have inherited.

The basket of deplorables narrative. The basket of deplorables narrative suggests that racism is an attribute of individual bad people and that by extension anti-immigration is produced by individual bad people. It is this perspective that has led to debates about whether Trump actually called African countries shitholes or not, the idea being that if he did he is a racist and if he did not he is not racist. In reality, racism is a system of oppression that promotes policies and practices that disproportionately hurt communities of color with policies that seek to criminalize immigrant communities as one example of such policies. There has been plenty of these efforts at criminalization on both sides of the political aisle with President Obama becoming known as the deporter in chief because of the large numbers of immigrants that he deported. From this perspective, Trump’s policies are not the product solely of an individual racist but can rather be understood as the logical extension of bipartisan efforts over the past several decades to criminalize immigrants. All of these efforts have been racist regardless of whether the individuals supporting them used overtly racist language or not.

We live in a sociopolitical context where the dehumanizing of immigrants is pervasive. It can be easy to fall into taps that accept this framing of the debate. It behooves those of us interested in advocating for immigrants to be vigilant to reject this framing in the narratives we produce. Our narratives must reject the premise that certain immigrants are more worthy than others. Instead, we must point to the fundamental human right for all people to be treated with dignity and respect.


Saying we are a nation of immigrants doesn’t make it true

This week the Trump administration announced that it would be ending Temporary Protected Status for approximately 59,000 Haitians who fled Haiti after its 2010 earthquake. This means that Haitians residing in the country under Temporary Protected Status have 18 months to find another way to legalize their status, return to Haiti, or enter the shadows where approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants currently reside. This comes on the tail of a similar announcement made related to 5,300 Nicaraguans. Both announcements are in line the anti-immigrant stance that has defined Trump’s policy positions since his first day as an official presidential candidate when he referred to Mexicans as “rapists.”

The Trump administration’s decision was immediately met with opposition from both sides of the political aisle. This included a statement from Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez who blasted Trump for “turning his back on the values that have made our country great.”  Here, Perez is offering a variant of the so-called “nation of immigrant” defense against anti-immigrant sentiment. The gist of this defense is that, because we are a nation of immigrants, policies that target immigrant communities are antithetical to US values. There is one problem with this defense. We are not a nation of immigrants.

The defining characteristic of the United States is not immigration but settler colonialism. The first European arrivals to what became the United States were not immigrating to an empty land. They were invading lands where millions of indigenous people resided. The settler colonial society that these European arrivals created was built by the labor of enslaved Black people who did not immigrant to the United States but were, instead, forcefully taken from Africa. The unpaid labor of enslaved populations was used to sustain the agriculture economy of the South that, in turn, allowed the North to develop a strong manufacturing economy. It was settler colonialism and slavery that allowed for the development of a wealthy white elite who would become the intellectual leaders of the US War of Independence. In this way, the freedom that many take to be foundational to US society was built on the backs of people living in situations of complete lack of freedom on lands that were forcibly taken from its original inhabitants.

Of particular relevance to the above discussion about Haiti are the roles of settler colonialism and anti-blackness in the nation’s reception of the Haitian revolution that overthrew the French colonial government in 1804. President Jefferson feared the Black-led revolution in Haiti would lead to slave revolts in the US and the overthrow of its settler colonial government. In response, he refused to acknowledge their independence and instituted a trade embargo that inflicted irrevocable damage on the economy of the new Haitian society. At the same time, as a direct result of the losses inflicted on France during the Haitian revolution, Jefferson was able to buy the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the settler colonial society.

As subsequent generations arrived from Europe, a common practice  was for these new arrivals to move out West where land that had been stolen from indigenous people was available to them. This pattern would continue in subsequent generations as the United States continued its westward expansion through war, conquest and financial transactions that completely ignored the indigenous people residing on these lands. In this way, while European settlers may have considered themselves immigrants trying to fulfill “the American Dream” from the perspective of indigenous people they were invaders who would eventually push them off their land and relegate them to reservations as part of their systematic genocide.

As the United States continued its Westward expansion it also positioned itself as an imperialist force throughout the Western Hemisphere, including in Haiti. US banks directly profited off of Haiti by offering the nation high interest loans that it used to repay the debt imposed on it by France as part of the terms for its independence. When Haiti began to have difficulties in repaying these loans the United States invaded the country and took over the National Bank of Haiti to ensure loan repayment. This history of imperialism, shaped by anti-blackness, directly contributed to the poor infrastructure that made the 2010 earthquake so devastating to Haiti and led to the mass migration from Haiti that followed. This phenomenon is not unique to Haiti and is a dynamic that helps to explain a great deal of migration from Latin America and the Caribbean to the United States, including the recent Puerto Rican migration caused by Hurricane Maria.

The recent announcement by the Trump administration to send these refugees back to Haiti is not turning its back on US values. It is, instead, a continuation of a long history of exploitation of Haitians. This exploitation of Haitians is itself part of broader racializing structures produced by the settler colonialism, anti-blackness and imperialism that have lied at the core of US society since its inception. These racializing structures are foundational to US institutions and have no party affiliation. This can be seen by the fact that President Obama oversaw the largest deportation of immigrants of any presidential administration in US history. In many ways, the Trump administration is building on the legacy of the Obama administration in its continued assault on immigrant communities. Attempting to challenge this assault through a “nation of immigrant” narrative obscures these broader racializing discourses and the institutional structures within which they are embedded.

We are not a nation of immigrants. We are a settler colonial nation that was built by enslaved Black people that provided the infrastructure for imperialist pursuits throughout the Western Hemisphere and around the world. Acknowledging this reality is an important first step in getting to the root of the problem. Specifically, the root of the problem is not that the United States has failed to live up to its values. The root of the problem is that the United States have yet to directly confront the racializing structures that have lied at the core of US institutions since their creation. These racializing structures will continue to produce disposable populations until they are dismantled. The first step in dismantling them is acknowledging their existence—something the “nation of immigrants” narratives fails to do.

Raciolinguistic Ideologies are not Individual Thoughts, They are Structural Racism

A common narrative that I have worked to debunk in my work are the raciolinguistic ideologies that frames low-income students of color are linguistically deficient in comparison to their white middle class counterparts. A common misreading of my attempts to challenge these raciolinguistic ideologies is that I am calling individuals who reproduce deficit framings racist. In reality, what I am attempting to do is to illustrate the ways that mainstream discourses available to us to describe the language practices of racialized communities have inherited a legacy of white supremacy that reifies their racialization regardless of the intent of individuals who rely on these discourses.

Contemporary raciolinguistic ideologies are descendants of raciolinguistic ideologies that were integral components to the perpetuation of European colonialism. For example, Spanish colonizers depicted indigenous languages as animal-like forms of simple communication. In a similar vein, French colonizers typically engaged Black French speakers as if they were children and refused to recognize them as legitimate French speakers with the same intellectual capacity as white people. These raciolinguistic ideologies were part of broader colonial efforts at the dehumanization of indigenous and African populations that could then be used to justify the violent conquest and genocide associated with European colonialism.

In the US context these raciolinguistic ideologies were integral components to the construction of whiteness as property. As Cheryl Harris argues, the slavery and settler colonialism that shaped the foundation of US society constructed whiteness as property in that people deemed white were permitted to enslave Africans and conquer indigenous lands. After the Civil War this whiteness as property shifted toward the ability to access space that was designated for white people through both de jure and de facto segregation, the relegation of indigenous peoples to reservation and the conquest of other settler colonial lands through the Mexican American War and the Spanish American war.

The Civil Rights era witnessed efforts to reform US institutions without addressing the multiple generations of racial exclusion associated with whiteness as property. Ujju Aggarawal traces the reconfiguration of what she refers to as the ideological architecture of whiteness as property in the post Civil Rights era to the Brown vs. Board of Education. She points to the ways that the discourses surrounding the Brown decision were focused on the psychological damages caused by segregation on the internal psyche of African American children in ways that obscured the legacy of racialized material inequalities that shaped their lives. From this perspective, the solution to this racial inequality becomes to fix the deficiencies of the African American community rather than dismantle the structural barriers confronting these communities.

A raciolinguistic court precedent related to school segregation was Mendez vs. Westminster. This decision made in 1947 by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals 7 years before the Brown decision, focused on the segregation of Mexican-American students in California. The argument made by Orange County school districts in defense of their segregation practices was that the segregation of Mexican-American students was justifiable because of their supposed language handicap. Particularly striking in the courts decision is the primary rationale for ending this segregation, which was not the material consequences of attending inferior schools on the multi-generational prospects of the Mexican-American community but rather in the fact that segregation leads them not to learn English. This framing has striking similarities to the primary problem with the segregation of African-American students identified by the Supreme Court in the Brown decision. The underlying theory of change in both decisions is that integrating will fix the perceived educational deficits of Mexican and African-American students and allow them to become the system rather than to transform the system.

The consequences of this ideological architecture of whiteness as property can be seen in the institutionalization of bilingual education in the post-Civil Rights era. In order to determine eligibility for bilingual education programs, students were administered language proficiency assessments in both English and Spanish that included tasks that were disconnected from their daily communicative practices. Many students performed poorly on these decontextualized assessments. As a result many of them were labeled “semilingual,” or not fully proficient in either English or Spanish.

The use of the term semilingualism has gradually disappeared from both scholarly and school-based framings of the language practices of Latinx students. Importantly, this new framing did not question the validity of the designation but rather thought the issue was one of a poor choice of words. Therefore, while within the context of European colonialism raciolinguistic ideologies were utilized to frame indigenous languages as animal-like in ways that are incompatible with civilization and Black people as child-like and in need of racial uplift, contemporary raciolinguistic ideologies frame racialized students home language practices as incompatible with our modern education system and in need of remediation. It is this phenomenon that a raciolinguistic perspective is challenging us to consider—namely, that while discourses have superficially changed over time the underlying framework has remained the same. There is something about the language practices of racialized communities that needs to be fixed.

The challenge of a raciolinguistic perspective is not, therefore, whether we individually have racist thoughts. Instead, it is about how the mainstream discourses available to us are a continuation of the logic of colonialism that frame racialized communities as inferior to the white population. It is about how these mainstream discourses place the onus on racialized communities to combat multiple generations of racial oppression by modifying their linguistic practices. It is about exposing how deeply entrenched structural racism is in the ways that we talk about language, even when our intention is to promote anti-racism.

A raciolinguistic perspective pushes us to critically examine the ways that we frame problems, which in turn informs the solutions that we provide. If we frame the problem as one of modifying the language practices of racialized communities, we leave intact the logics of colonialism that produce contemporary raciolinguistic ideologies. If we frame the problem as one of multiple generations of racial oppression, then our solutions can more readily focus on dismantling structural racism. While dismantling structural racism may seem like a daunting task, it is the only way to truly dismantle the raciolinguistic ideologies our society has inherited.

For more information, check out my latest article with Jonathan Rosa:

Unsettling race and language: Toward a raciolinguistic perspective

Not Having the Right/White Qualifications for English Language Teaching

Vijay Ramjattan is a doctoral student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. I had the privilege of hearing him speak about his research at the recent Language Policy and Planning conference. He presented findings from a study on the experiences of racialized English language teachers in Canada. In particular, he described the racial microaggressions that the teachers endured and some of the coping strategies they used in confronting these microaggressions. Below he writes about his most recent publication that explores these issues in more depth. This is a scholar that we should all be keeping our eyes on.


As a former English language teacher of Indo-Trinidadian descent who worked in various Canadian English language schools, I often remember how students would be surprised, perplexed, and/or disappointed that I was their instructor. After having experienced these reactions on a repeated basis, I came to realize that I did not have the right qualifications for English language teaching (ELT). Rather than a lack of formal education and experience, however, my unsuitability derived from the fact that I was brown. In fact, since I was nonwhite, I was perceived to be a nonnative and hence deficient user of English. Furthermore, for students wanting to connect with ‘real Canadian’ teachers, my brownness signified that I was not Canadian even though I was born and raised in the country.

My professional experiences thus taught me that students can have racist nativist notions of qualified English language teachers. That is, they can see white teachers as embodying nativeness in English as well as an English-speaking country such as Canada, both of which signal one’s expertise as an ELT professional. In order to further explore these notions, I wrote an article for Race Ethnicity and Education that used interview data with 10 teachers of colour who had similar experiences as me while working in various schools in Toronto, Canada. In the article, I describe how these teachers experienced students’ racist nativist sentiments in the form of microaggressions, banal attacks that communicate negative messages to specific marginalized people/groups.

These racist nativist microaggressions took on three main forms. First, some teachers were interrogated about their nativeness to Canada, thereby positioning them as not truly Canadian. Moreover, they felt that their learners believed them to be foreign to and thus deficient in English as seen in such things as their skepticism of various language points taught to them in class. Last, almost half of the teachers were constructed as ‘invaders’ in the classroom as students displayed visible disappointment in having them as instructors.

While the teachers were bombarded by these microaggressions on a daily basis, they often tried to resist these attacks through their self-presentation and teaching, albeit with differing results. Indeed, some teachers conformed to the hegemony of the white native speaker of English by choosing to ‘whiten’ themselves through name changes or (verbally) presenting themselves as exceptions to the idea of the linguistically deficient teacher of colour. In contrast, other teachers sought to overthrow this hegemony through such things as actively displaying their pedagogical superiority or explicitly mentioning how Canada is constructed as a white nation.

These individual tactics remind us that teachers’ activism against racist nativism (and other types of oppression) in ELT is best done through their teaching. Of course, adopting specific impression management strategies or finding teachable moments in class are not going to immediately dismantle the white supremacy inherent in the ELT industry, which ranges from racist hiring practices to textbooks modelled after white native speakers of English. Nevertheless, I have found that these local strategies can inspire students and other ELT stakeholders to strive for social change. For instance, simply speaking to former students and colleagues about my own experiences of racist nativism has prompted them to consider how they perpetuate this oppression in their own daily activities. Ideally, this consciousness-raising may help to disrupt the notion that the right qualifications for ELT are white qualifications.

Are Latinx ELLs in Philadelphia Schools Not Learning English?

A recent report by the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium focused on the education of ELLs in Philadelphia. One finding was particularly troubling. Only 43% of Spanish-speaking ELLs who entered kindergarten were reclassified as English proficient within 4 years. This compared to 64% of Khmer speakers, 68% of Arabic speakers, 72% of Vietnamese speakers and 79% of Chinese speakers. Is it really the case that Latinx ELLs in Philadelphia schools are not learning English? If so, what accounts for this? If not, what is really going on here?

Local report Avi Wolfman-Arent has just published an article that seeks to explore these questions. He concludes that another of factors contribute to these academic differences. I appreciate his nuanced analysis and would like to expand on some of my comments that were included as part of his story.

It is important to begin by considering what exactly is meant by English proficient in the context of the education of ELLs in Philadelphia schools. It does not mean the ability to communicate in English. The vast majority of ELLs who have been in Philadelphia schools for 4 years, regardless of their language background, are able to communicate in English. Indeed, many may even feel more comfortable using English, especially in academic settings. What schools typically mean by English proficient is that ELLs have demonstrated the ability to engage with grade-level content in English. In the case of Philadelphia this means scoring at least a 5 on the ACCESS for ELLs.

The ability to engage with grade-level content is a rigorous standard for being considered English proficient. The fact that non-Spanish speaking ELLs are more likely to achieve this goal than their Spanish-speaking peers suggests that the schools that these students attend are more successful at providing them access to the academic skills being targeted by the ACCESS for ELLs.

Why might certain schools be more successful than others at supporting ELLs in achieving these goals? It is likely because they are more successful at supporting the academic needs of all of their students. That is, schools where ELLs perform higher on the ACCESS for ELLs are also likely schools where the general student population perform higher on the PSSA. In a nutshell, these schools are relatively “high performing schools.”

What makes these school high performing? Here is where things get complicated. Though the curriculum and instruction are certainly important, many other factors also contribute to the academic performance levels of a school. These factors include the poverty rate of the student population, the qualification of the teachers and their years of experience and staff stability. All of these factors must be considered when trying to explain the achievement differences between ELLs of different language backgrounds.

Philadelphia is one of the most segregated cities in the country. Children from these different language backgrounds rarely live in the same neighborhoods and go to the same schools.  Latinx children are concentrated in North Philadelphia, an area of the city with a long history of poverty and segregation. Schools in this neighborhood confront the many consequences of poverty while often having the fewest resources to confront these challenges, the least experienced teachers and the highest turnover. In contrast, non-Spanish speaking ELLs are more likely to attend more integrated schools that are likely to have more experienced teachers and stable staffing. Considering these differences, it is not surprising to see academic differences between these groups of ELLs.

Of course curriculum and instruction also matter. A case in point can be found in the work of Maneka Brooks a researcher at Texas State University who has conducted research with Latinx “long-term English learners,” students who reach high school without ever testing out of their ELL status. She has found that these students are actually quite proficient in the language and literacy practices they are being socialized into in their classrooms. The problem is that these do not match the language and literacy demands of the assessments that are being used to determine their English language proficiency. There are many factors that might explain this disconnect including teacher expectations and school and district-level mandates that prescribe particular remedial interventions for this student population because of broader societal attitudes about their capability.

Yet, the quality of curriculum and instruction is more a symptom rather than the cause of the problem of education Latinx ELLs. In short, the achievement differences between Spanish-speaking ELLs and ELLs from other language backgrounds is not primarily a linguistic problem, but rather a political and economic problem. This means that the solutions cannot be primarily linguistic but must include political and economic reforms. As long as Latinx ELLs continue to be relegated high-poverty and hyper-segregated areas of the city they will continue to face academic challenges. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that massive efforts at integration will happen in Philadelphia anytime soon. That said, the mayor’s office push for community schools might provide a point of entry for beginning to push for schools in North Philadelphia that are part of broader comprehensive anti-poverty efforts to support Latinx families. Decreasing the poverty in North Philadelphia would work wonders for Latinx ELL performance on the ACCESS for ELLs.

Charter schools are not the problem. White supremacy is.

In 1970, Richie Perez, a member of the Young Lords, a militant Puerto Rican nationalist political party, wrote an article calling for Puerto Ricans to take control of their schools in order to develop local bilingual curriculums that embrace their Afro-Latinx heritage. The same year, Milton Friedman, a prominent University of Chicago economist, also made a case for parents of color to take control of their schools as consumers choosing schools from a marketplace of options.

It is tempting to want to position these two visions of community control as fundamentally opposed to one another. Yet, there are certain commonalities between these two perspectives, especially in their desire to take power away from the government and put them into the hands of the communities of color being served by public education.

Indeed, forty-five years later, I witnessed these two visions of community control in a precarious alliance at a fundraising event for a bilingual charter school run by a Latinx community based organization. On the one hand, the event paralleled Friedman’s neoliberal ideal of school choice. Many of the people at the fundraiser were members of the business community who desired a more active role in developing high-quality educational programs in the city. As a way of convincing these prospective funders to invest in the school, the school leadership celebrated their ability to provide a high-quality choice for their community and had parents speak about why they chose this school for their children.

On the other hand, the event also had traces of the radical vision of Richie Perez. For example, imagery in the school included the faces of prominent Puerto Rican nationalists such as Lolita Lebrón, who led an armed assault on the US House of Representatives in 1954 in the name of Puerto Rican independence. In addition, school leaders emphasized the importance of bilingual education in supporting Latinx children in developing a strong sense of their cultural identity that they will be able to use to advocate for the Latinx community as adults.

Is this school a continuation of the radical political struggles of Richie Perez or its neoliberal co-option by followers of Milton Friedman? I would argue that this rigid either/or framing of the question does not do justice to the complex decision-making of those of us seeking to advocate for bilingual education within the current polarized educational debate framed around pro vs. anti-charter school factions. This polarized framing relies on heroes and villains in ways that obscure the broader working of white supremacy.

For example, on the anti-charter school side common rallying cries are to “save public schools” or to “keep public schools, public.”  For activists utilizing this mantra, advocates for public education are heroes who are fighting the villains in the charter school sector who are seeking to impose a corporate agenda on the nation’s schools. Yet, what does it mean to save public education when public education has always been white supremacist and unresponsive to the grievances of minoritized communities?  In the specific case of bilingual education activists, large urban districts have often proven themselves either unresponsive or outright hostile to developing bilingual education programs. In this context, can we blame bilingual education activists who have taken advantage of charter school legislation to develop their own programs rather than work to save an institution that has never served them well?

That said, the pro-charter school side often relies on discourses that frame charter school advocates as heroes who are fighting against the villains in the unresponsive bureaucracies of public school districts. Yet, positioning charter schools as a panacea for educational inequities also overlooks the material consequences that the proliferation of charter schools have on the education of children of color who remain in traditional public schools. Because of the many fixed costs associated with keeping a school open, such as keeping the lights on and the building heated, traditional public schools that continue to serve the vast majority of the students of color in US schools find themselves having fewer and fewer resources to educate these students. In this context, opening a bilingual charter school benefits some students of color at the expense of those left behind.

It is precisely this dilemma that bilingual education activists find ourselves in. Do we continue to work to create high-quality bilingual education programs in public schools that have oftentimes been unreliable in their support for these programs? Or do we pave our own way through promoting charter schools where we have more autonomy in creating bilingual programs even as this decision may also negatively impact the education of students of color who remain in traditional public schools? This is a difficult decision that does not fall neatly into the heroes and villains framing that permeates most of the mainstream framing of the charter school debate.

Perhaps a more productive way of framing of contemporary bilingual education activism would begin with the question of what it means to fight for bilingual education from a position of racialized subordination. To answer this question requires a move away from sorting bilingual education activism into “grassroots” or “corporate” and instead study the different strategies that Latinx community activists utilize in developing socially just language policies and the constraint under which these strategies develop and are used. This alternative framing focuses the analysis on critiquing the institutional constraints rather than the individual decision-making process of minoritized community activists who are working to transform white supremacist institutions.

Focusing on the strategies of individual agents may also allow us to begin to focus more explicitly on the root cause of the problem, which is not charter schools—after all if this history tells us anything it is that Latinxs and other communities of color have never been served well by public schools—but the systematic disinvestment in racialized communities that has pitted members of these communities against one another to fight for the scraps of an unjust system. Until we as a society are willing to invest in these communities it does a huge disservice to minoritized community activists for working to improve the education of their children within the hand that they have been dealt—something that affluent White parents do for their children without any criticism.

Do Black Lives Matter in Dual Language Education in Urbana School District 116?

Several months ago I wrote a blog post entitled “Do Black Lives Matter in Bilingual Education?” After writing this blog post I was able to connect with Joseph Wiemelt, the Director of Equity and Student Learning; Bilingual & Multicultural Programs for Urbana School District 116. He shared with me the work that his district has undertaken to ensure that black students have equitable access to dual language programs. I was so excited to hear about this work that I invited him to submit a guest post to the blog. I am certain that many of you will find his experiences relevant to your work advocacy work.


Do black lives matter in bilingual education in my school district? That was the question I asked myself after reading Dr. Flores’ critical post on exploring the concept of #blacklivesmatter in bilingual education. As Director of Equity & Student Learning; Bilingual & Multicultural Programs for Urbana School District 116 (USD116), it particularly resonated with me.

Pulling from Dr. Flores’ five ways related to how anti-blackness may have influenced the discourse and decision making in our implementation, I will analyze how some of these issues complicated the process of establishing a dual language program in one elementary school that served a predominately black neighborhood. Additionally, I will highlight the successes of how we have intentionally worked to serve black students, and all students across race, as well as the areas of struggle that we are continuously working to improve in order to provide an equitable dual language program that serves all students.

In 2012, USD116 decided to phase out transitional forms of bilingual education to start dual language programs in order to improve the opportunities for emergent bilingual Latinx youth. While we were cautious around the idea of Fetishizing Two-Way Immersion Programs as the Gold Standard of Bilingual Education, we still believed that we could move to dual language programs and also be intentional in our approach to ensure a quality program for Latinx children and our entire community across race, including black students.

As such, this resulted in expanding the program to multiple schools. Because USD116 has neighborhood attendance boundaries for elementary schools, and due to racially segregated neighborhoods across the community, several elementary schools reflect the neighborhoods that they serve. With this in mind, the decisions to determine which schools would house the dual language programs became intertwined with issues of race and racism. Moreover, questions related to access and opportunity to be part of the dual language program was complicated by assumptions and perspectives of which schools, and therefore which students and families, would be most appropriate to start a dual language programs. While the importance of ensuring excellent bilingual programs and opportunities for Latinx youth was at the center of this work, the questions related to who the “English speaking students” would be was also a key equity initiative.

Assuming Native English Speakers to be White was a key issue that we have faced. In the process of considering which schools would house the dual language program, the district considered multiple schools for this opportunity. The overall community was excited for the plan to implement dual language programs and many families across racial groups expressed their interest. However, when the possibility of starting a program at the school of predominately black students arose, questions and concerns related to whether or not the program would be effective and successful surfaced. While explicit conversations related to whom the “native English speakers” should be did not necessarily take place in public, the implicit messages being sent related to why would we even consider putting a dual language program at this school were present. From online, anonymous comments in the local newspaper to behind the scenes comments, people across the community questioned whether or not this would be a wise decision due to the assumption that this program would be better for white students who “spoke English well” rather than black students who “didn’t speak English well”.  As Dr. Flores states, explicitly naming who the students are who come from positions of privilege (white native English speakers) and those who come from positions of oppression (black native English speakers) was important for us to acknowledge.

Even with the racialized discourse surrounding this decision, the school district received board approval to start the program in one predominantly white school and one predominantly black school. From there, the work began to ensure that black and Latinx student enrollment was equitable and accessible, and the work to prepare to serve both student groups well was initiated.

Ignoring English Language Variation is also an area that has challenged our work. We have had to continuously work at changing the narrative around language variation across English and Spanish. All too often, black vernacular is viewed in deficit-oriented ways, especially in the school setting, similarly to how different language varieties of Spanish can be viewed as “informal”. As such, we have had to work diligently at understanding language varieties across both English and Spanish while also working to better understand the concept of translanguaging for emergent bilingual youth in the US context, with a particular focus on how students across different racial and linguistic groups translanguage.

Now, five years into our program, we have seen great success in the enrollment and success of black, Latinx and white students in the dual language program across schools. We have waiting lists of students from English only backgrounds across race applying from all over the community to get into the school and the program. This is the same school and program that was once questioned as whether or not the students and families were the “right fit” for dual language. Today we continuously get visitors who are surprised that black students are enrolled in the dual language program and doing so well. Interestingly enough, many times I have given tours of our classrooms and people are shocked to see black students speaking Spanish, becoming bilingual, and developing biliteracy skills.

Erasing the Experiences of Afro-Latinxs was also to be a key issue that was overlooked and misunderstood, and is still an area of struggle. Questions related to the key equity issues of ensuring that our educators reflect the students we serve are important ones. Usually in the context of bilingual education we understand this to be focusing on the increase of Latinx teachers in our bilingual programs. However, if black lives matter in bilingual education, we have to ensure that we also have black teachers and Afro-Latinx teachers. Through past teacher recruitment efforts we have worked to ensure an increase in US Latinx and bilingual teachers, and we have also begun working to recruit and retain Afro-Latinx teachers. Not only is it important for all of our students to see themselves reflected in the teaching staff, we also want to continue to strengthen our curriculum and units of study to reflect the students we serve.

Positioning bilingual education as a panacea for racial inequalities is also an area we are challenging. While we have advocated and argued that strong dual language programs have the potential to be transformative in our community, we also acknowledge that even strong dual language programs are still situated in a broader system of white supremacy and racism across the country. As part of our district wide unified professional development plan, our district has made a commitment to racial equity in order to dismantle inequitable practices and rebuild them through an intentional equity-oriented approach. As such, our dual language program staff is working on being critical of our own practices within our dual language programs that serve a multiracial community.

Lastly, in the conversation related to black lives and bilingual education in USD116, we need to take a hard look at our educational plans to serve the growing population of African immigrant emergent bilinguals and trilinguals from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Outside of the context of Spanish/English bilingual education, populations of low incidence languages are often underserved in schools. Thus, our approach to serving our black emergent trilingual students across Lingala, French, and English must be a critical component of our district wide efforts to serve all students moving forward.

As Dr. Flores states, “The only way to ensure that bilingual education is a tool for social change is to ensure that it is situated within a broader project that seeks to dismantle anti-Blackness. Anything less than this is tantamount to treating Black lives as if they don’t matter”. At USD116 we are working to ensure that our bilingual education programs are a part of this broader project. While we have many areas we have to improve, and our programs are not perfect, particularly for black and Latinx students, we have and will continue to work to change the norm that black lives don’t matter in education, and bilingual education in particular.