Black Students at Brooklyn Tech Pay the Price in A School System That Doesn’t See Color
By Dominique Stewart
On January 4, #blackinbrooklyntech started trending on Facebook, as black students from Brooklyn Technical High School spoke out about their experience at the elite school. One of eight specialized high schools in the city for which admission is based entirely on the results of an entrance exam, the Specialized High School Aptitude Test (SHSAT), Brooklyn Tech has a student body comprising 61 percent Asian, 20 percent white, 8 percent Latino and 8 percent black students, demographically similar to other competitive high public schools in the city, but not reflective of the city’s student population on the whole, approximately 70 percent of which is black and Latino.
But while some other sought-after high schools in the city require interviews and portfolios, and have individualized processes whose inherent subjectivity has long been thought to prioritize the school system’s white population, entrance into the specialized high schools is ostensibly race-and ethnicity-blind. In fact, the claimed benefit of the SHSAT is that, because it doesn’t factor in anything other than the score of this one test, it thus offers the fairest possible admissions process for students. And yet, the rise of #blackinbrooklyntech stands counter to this theory, and serves to illustrate that the demographic disparity at Brooklyn Tech and the rest of the specialized high schools (Tech has the most demographically diverse student body) has resulted in an allegedly hostile environment towards black students.
The hashtag quickly became a digital safe space for black students to share stories of racism, ignorance, and/or the micro-aggressions they’d encountered from students and faculty, without fear of retaliation from the administration; it also became a catalyst for alumni and students from other elite NYC public high schools not only to share their own experiences, but also, in some cases, to offer disbelief at the racial tension which exists at Brooklyn Tech. And while, even in its infancy, the hashtag was mocked by people attempting to discredit the validity of the movement with the hashtag #whiteinbrooklyntech, the #blackinbrooklyntech movement grew, grabbing the attention of media outlets, the NYC Department of Education, and Brooklyn Tech principal Randy Asher.
Brook Baker, a counselor at a tutoring program in Brooklyn where three of the students who started the hashtag intern (and, full disclosure, a roommate of mine), says the “breaking point” came following an incident this past winter recess. At that time, one of the students who would later start the hashtag was invited into a private chat room for the purpose of having racial slurs directed toward her and other minority students enrolled at Tech. After this happened, several students, including some representing the school’s Black Student Union, organized in order to break the silence surrounding racism at the school, and to shed light on Brooklyn Tech’s inability to create a safe and supportive learning environment for the entire student body.
Principal Asher would go on to meet first with current students (and later, separately, with alumni) to address the racial climate at the school but his words were laughably empty, an indication that the meetings were not much more than a scramble for surface-level resolutions to appease the students, but more specifically the alumni, and to keep the situation from reaching the level of national significance that #Mizzou recently generated, which resulted in the resignation of the University of Missouri’s president and chancellor. And while talks to move the conversation at Brooklyn Tech forward appeared promising at first with the appropriate parties facing repercussions, it’s hard not to feel like the #blackinbrooklyntech movement, and the larger problems it attempted to address, is now getting swept under the rug. And yet the oft-unspoken problem at Brooklyn Tech and the other specialized schools remains: It is impossible to deal with institutional racism while also ignoring the ways in which race is an educational factor, and pretending that the playing field, i.e. the SHSAT, is at all level. Because while race does not affect one’s capacity to learn and excel, it does determine the opportunities and resources available to people of color, thus potentially limiting and certainly influencing them.
And while, to be fair, the race-based problems at Brooklyn Tech are but a microcosm of city- and society-wide issues; there’s little that Principal Asher can do beyond mandating diversity and sensitivity training for both students and faculty, implement mentorships and middle school outreach, along with other initiatives to drive out hate speech and enforce zero-tolerance policy at Brooklyn Tech, all of which is happening. The real issue of #blackinbrooklyntech, though, is that, at its core, this hashtag is not about the school’s negligence, and rather manifests before students even take the SHSAT, a point that Elizabeth Sciabarra, the Alumni Foundation Executive Director highlighted during the alumni meeting with the school on January 20 where she talked about getting alumni involved in middle school outreach.
“We want to talk about going into communities where we have not found significant representation. In this school, we have to start before students get here,”Sciabarra said. “So it’s important for you to have key information at your fingertips, but at the same time, it’s more about telling our young people in those middle schools that they can do it. And how they can do it, with the support so they can do it.”
It’s very common these days to hear everyone from educators to editors (to myriad other people) toss around the word “diversity” as a way of encouraging inclusivity and equality, but it is much less common to see true diversity exist in professional and social settings. Instead, “diversity” is more of an “empty buzzword” that results in little more than just another box being checked off on what’s desirable in our society. The existence of diversity sounds enticing, but rarely does it solve any problems—at times, diverse populations only serve to amplify them. The reality is that, statistically and anecdotally, diversity initiatives don’t always generate examples of success, and integration into predominately white spaces are frequently met with microaggressions and blatant racial bias from the once comfortable majority. As seen at Brooklyn Tech, being present doesn’t mean being welcomed. And a huge problem is that even in seemingly progressive places, like New York and its public school system, once racial issues are illuminated, as with #blackinbrooklyntech, it becomes very clear that while a diverse student body might be coveted, the experiences of its minority students are too often ignored.