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Saturday, September 30, 2023

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James Wright, assistant professor in SDSU's Department of Educational Leadership, posed outside Lamden Hall. James Wright, assistant professor in SDSU's Department of Educational Leadership, posed outside Lamden Hall.

Confronting the History Behind Educational Inequities

A Q&A with assistant professor James Wright, looking backward for clues on a better way forward for schools.
By Michael Klitzing

James Wright is an educational researcher by trade, but a historian at heart. The assistant professor in San Diego State University’s Department of Educational Leadership is a firm believer that you can’t understand contemporary issues around educational equity and reform without understanding Jim Crow segregation, the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that made segregation in public schools unconstitutional, and how the legacies of both still reverberate in contemporary systems.

Wright has had a prodigious past year on the publishing front. This spring, he co-authored a Journal of Education Human Resources article with Joanna Brooks, SDSU's associate vice president for Faculty Advancement & Student Success, and doctoral student Roya Tabrizi exploring how faculty development in higher education has long failed to support professors of color.

He co-authored an article in Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education on the problematic history of discourse about achievement gaps between white students and students of color. And he published an article on the roots of coloniality in educational leadership as part of a special issue in Educational Administration Quarterly, for which he served as lead associate editor.

This summer, Wright is taking a historical deep dive of a deeply personal nature. He spent much of June on an East Coast tour to promote his recently published memoir “Heirs of the Great Migration: How the Past Became the Future,” an account of his family's journey from the Jim Crow South to Connecticut in search of opportunity, as well as his own youth shaped by the forces of deindustrialization, disinvestment and the drug epidemic.

SDSU NewsCenter’s Michael Klitzing asked Wright about what can be learned from the past about our current moment in education.

Why do you tend to take such a long view in your education research?

My research is grounded in history because I wanted to understand the origins of educational administration. For me it's just fundamental. It might sound cliché, but in order to understand where we are and where we're going, you have to understand where we came from.

You’ve written a lot about coloniality in educational leadership. How has that manifested itself?

One example is we've had about 60 or 70 years of educational leadership reform trying to address specific issues in education, whether it be the so-called achievement gap or the academic under achievements of Black students and other students of color. Yet the people who are most impacted by this tragedy — and it's an American tragedy — Black and brown educators are never at the forefront of the conversation. If they are part of the conversation, their perspectives are extremely marginal and a lot of times tokenized.

Is meaningful reform in education possible?

The system can be changed, but not through incremental steps. That hasn't gotten us anywhere and it won't get us anywhere. The Brown decision wasn't an incremental step. This was a national decision made at the highest branches of government to rectify a wrong — or at least that was the stated intention. So there's no reason to think that can't happen again.

What might that look like?

In the case of Black students, so much research has shown how Black students learn and the kinds of environments that they need to learn in. They need safe environments. They need environments with educators who understand them, who care about them, who can relate to them and who will push them.

But what Black students have gotten over the past 70 years, in many cases, is the opposite. They've had white teachers who have been openly hostile to them or who felt sorry for them and just pushed them along. We need an educational system that will provide safe spaces for Black educators to educate Black students on their own terms. This is not some abstract idea, it’s an idea rooted in history.

What was it like delving into your own history in Heirs of the Great Migration?

Oh, it was very cathartic. I grew up at the peak of deindustrialization when these factory jobs went offshore and closed down, as our schools were being divested, as our neighborhoods were flooded with crack cocaine. It essentially changed the course of Black America. Yet at the same time, my generation — Generation X — represents the first generation of Black people in U.S. history born with all of our constitutional rights.

It was very painful in a lot of ways to recall certain family stories and recall some of what I wanted to forget about my own experiences. But in the end I felt a freedom and release that I couldn't have predicted. I got to express a story of survival and do it on my own terms.