AAP Names Racism As Critical Child Health Issue, Asks Pediatricians To Step Up. What Can Educators Do?

The American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement on the continued impact of racism on children's health and what pediatricians must do to combat it. Educators, too, can help, and organizations offer professional development and training on anti-racism, so they can support their students better.

As the 2019–20 school year began, children across the country were processing another mass shooting, this one with a killer posting a racist manifesto online then targeting Mexicans in El Paso, TX. The attack near the southern border came as U.S. government policies continue to target migrants of color and undocumented residents. Anti-Semitic vandalism and violence is on the rise, along with the number of white nationalist groups. In August, the Trump administration announced a “public charge” rule that would connect immigration status to the ability to receive services such as subsidized housing and food assistance benefits.

Children at anti-racism summer camp in North Carolina. Photo courtesy: we are

For the first time in its nearly 90-year history, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) was compelled to issue a policy on racism’s impact on children’s health. Racism joins the AAP’s list of critical child health issues—such as immunizations and opioid addiction—which require immediate attention and action.

“Although we have progressed toward greater racial equity, racism continues to undermine the health of children, adolescents and families,” the new policy, “The Impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent Health,” states. “Children and adolescents experience racism through the place they live and learn, by what they have economically and how their rights are protected.

“The stress generated by experiences of racism may start through maternal exposures while in utero and continue after birth with the potential to create toxic stress. This transforms how the brain and body respond to stress, resulting in short- and long-term health impacts on achievement and mental and physical health.”

In a letter accompanying the policy, which appeared in the August issue of AAP’s journal Pediatrics, the organization’s president Kyle E. Yasuda said, “The impact on communities of color is wide-reaching, systemic and complex. I have learned that Indigenous people have among the worst health status and greatest underrepresentation in the health care workforce. I have spoken with migrant children who are experiencing debilitating effects of toxic stress. And I have met with pediatricians in urban communities, where black teenage boys live in fear not only of gang and gun violence but of being targets of the law enforcement and criminal justice systems meant to protect them.”

Pediatricians are being asked to step up and engage in practical solutions. Could educators do the same? Combating the impact of racism may seem overwhelming, but as with the doctors, there are concrete steps those in the educational system can take.

Having a more diverse workforce of educators and administrators is important. Research shows that educators of color are less likely to rely on harmful stereotypes of young people and to rely on punishment as a strategy to build connection or modify behaviors and more likely to set higher expectations for their students of color, according to Monique W. Morris, cofounder of the National Black ­Women’s Justice Institute and author of Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues: Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown Girls.

Nonprofit we are runs anti-racism camps for kids and professional development workshops for educators. Photo courtesy: we are

It is also important to have educators of color participate in conversations at professional development meetings and are in schools to hold peers accountable, says Morris. But, she adds, diversification among staff is not the singular solution, noting that being a person of color alone does not make someone qualified to engage with young people.

No matter their race, if an adult has internalized negative ideas about young people, they are just as apt to cause harm in the lives of students, according to Morris. Race isn’t the primary concern when students speak with her about teachers.

“When I talk to girls, they say they want a teacher who cares. Period,” she says, adding that students get that experience more often with educators of color, and for girls, with women of color.

Creating a more diverse workforce of teachers and administrators will take time. Right now, to help combat the impact of racism on their students and create a healthier and more equitable learning environment, educators can take part in anti-racism programs.

Anti-racism is “thoughts and actions that work toward dismantling and disrupting white supremacy,” says Ronda Taylor Bullock, whose North Carolina nonprofit runs a literacy-based anti-racism summer camp for elementary school kids, as well as programs for educators. “It is active. It’s something you have to be doing. You can’t do it one time and be labeled an anti-racist. It’s an ongoing process.”

Taylor Bullock is a former high school English teacher with a doctorate in policy, leadership, and school improvement. Her organization—we are—runs an anti-racism educator institute, curriculum workshop, and Let’s Talk Racism conference.

When discussing racism with children, Taylor Bullock says, the young campers don’t understand why people treat others unfairly because of how they look. Adults, however, have a more ingrained bias and often rationalize individual
actions or deny the existence of systemic racism in schools altogether, she says.

“We spend time building a historical understanding of how race and racism emerged, how it has impacted education through laws and policies along the way, and then help educators think through, ‘What does this mean for us in our classrooms?’ ” Taylor Bullock says.

It is necessarily difficult and uncomfortable. They discuss many topics,
including the school-to-prison pipeline and how educators are “actors in it but we can be disrupters as well.”

Taylor Bullock shows the data, the disproportionate punishment of students of color. Every year, she says, there is pushback: Isn’t it true that kids living in poverty misbehave more? Aren’t black boys more likely to cause trouble? Shouldn’t they get suspended if they get in fights?

“The population representation in all demographics would mirror the population’s representation in suspension data if all things were equal,” she says. “We try to make that very concrete. Some people will say it’s not race, it’s something else.”

The program includes a caucus of participants. Organizers ask them to divide themselves by the race they identify with. It can get “messy,” according to Taylor Bullock.

“For many white folks, it’s their first time sitting in an intentionally-named white space,” she says. “We get a lot of feedback about what that felt like. Some people think it’s racist. It’s just interesting. It’s a learning experience for us as we’re trying to create these spaces and get white people to sit intentionally among white people and think about how to use power and privilege to disrupt systemic racism.”

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