As I have thought about describing my experiences with racial inequity in America, I wanted to do more than simply talk about the overt signs of bigotry we see in the headlines. It certainly would be easy to point to police violence against young black males and other sensational yet sobering news stories in the public eye. But I believe the more difficult form of prejudice we need to overcome is the hidden, institutional racism embedded in our society.
Have you ever seen a black Band-Aid? You will be hard-pressed to find one, even though the pink Band-Aids that are marketed as “flesh colored” don’t match the skin tones of millions of Americans. This is just one unwitting example of the way racial inequity has become ingrained in our Anglo-centric culture.
There are other less subtle manifestations of institutional racism. Look at mortgage lending rates to African-American families. Or how Latino families who speak Spanish in public are treated. How about the presumptions of class differentiation imposed on families who live in our inner cities today? Then there is the unintended bias based on race evident in standardized tests such as the SATs.
People of color in our nation do not have to be personally attacked or treated unfairly by the people around them to feel institutional racism — it is embedded in the social norms and assumptions that permeate our daily lives.
For Latinos in our country, racism is a subtext of the larger political issue of immigration, but for African-Americans, racism continues to be at the root of the prejudice and bigotry they have endured for centuries. One hundred and fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., our nation continues to struggle with issues of race, particularly those that are subtle, hidden and institutionalized.
As an educator, I believe it is in our schools and colleges where we can and must continue to seek justice and change. In 1848, the great 19th-century educator Horace Mann called education “the great equalizer of the conditions of men — the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” One hundred and seventy years later, the numbers indicate the balance-wheel has yet to reach inner-city blacks in this country.
In Connecticut, African-Americans continue to have higher than average high school dropout rates. As an educator in Connecticut, it is particularly sobering to compare the educational performance of students of color to their more affluent white peers, who benefit from all the support and advantages that money provides. In fact, the difference in National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores between students from affluent suburbs and low-income students in our cities — the majority of them students of color — is the largest in the nation.
While family income is the chief factor, the academic performance of African American and Latino students follows suit. Most disheartening, as minority students move through the school systems of Connecticut, the gap grows larger. For instance, the gap in recent reading scores between white and African-American students grew by five points between the fourth and eighth grades.
The barriers to progress within our schools are many. Data shows that there are fewer teachers in schools that predominantly enroll African-American students. African-American children attending schools with white majorities are not necessarily better off. “I think that students of color are automatically stereotyped sometimes when they go into school systems that are predominantly white,” said the parent of a student at Capitol Prep Magnet School in Hartford. “The stereotype that there’s no father in the home, that the parents don’t care; we have a plethora of stereotypes — that the kids have behavioral problems, that the boys should all be put on Ritalin or something of that sort.” 
Other examples of institutionalized bias against minority students are particularly discouraging. For instance, it is sobering if not surprising to find out that African-American and Latino students are suspended or expelled from school at much larger rates than white students. The Civil Rights Project of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies found significant differences in suspension rates in a study of more than 4,000 school districts. The overall gap of 18.4 percent between the suspension of white and African American students in Connecticut was the third largest in the country.  Debunking the argument that suspending or expelling students weeds out the “bad kids,” the report found that “. . . the frequent use of suspension brings no benefits in terms of test scores or graduation rates . . . a relatively lower use of out-of-school suspensions, after controlling for race and poverty, correlates with higher test scores, not lower.” 
The data is sobering. The personal challenges facing inner-city families are daunting. The issues facing our K-12 school systems seem insurmountable. But I have always been an optimistic person. I believe that each of us can make a difference by focusing on the things we can affect around us. On my own campus, our approach to supporting African-American and other students has been to directly confront the issues that have prevented their progress in the past.
The first thing we want to do is to make African-Americans and other students of color feel safe and respected on our campus. We help them to build trust with the people who are new to their lives and we encourage them to reach out to seek assistance so that they can feel secure in an unfamiliar environment.
To attack negative stereotypes about the motivation and competence of African-American males, we created a student club for male students — most of them African-Americans — and their deportment (dress shirts and ties every Wednesday), service and professionalism have become a campus symbol. The club just celebrated its 20th anniversary.
African-American and other minority students on our campus have access to the same academic support services that all our students have, but they also benefit from the fact that we have the largest percentage of minority faculty of any college or university in Connecticut, including Yale, Wesleyan and the University of Connecticut.
Most importantly, and perhaps for the first time in their lives, students of color and white students on our campus study together, live together and begin to learn how to work together to overcome the issues of racial inequity that have diminished our nation since its beginnings.
Here in New England, I am particularly proud of the work of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and its commitment to improving educational opportunities for first-generation, minority and economically disenfranchised students. The foundation’s learning and examination around racial equity not only reflects the Foundation’s values of social justice and equal opportunity, it is the moral basis on which we work to improve the quality of life for thousands of New England students.
We have far to go — generations of changes to come — but progress is being made. I would urge others to reach out within their own personal circle of influence to advance the cause of racial equity in their own community. If we want to change the world, we must do it one life at a time.
Elsa Nuñez is the President of Eastern Connecticut State University and a Nellie Mae Education Foundation Board Member.
1. “Overview,” Latino Policy Institute, an initiative of the Hispanic Health Council, 2009.
2. Daniel Losen and Jonathan Gillespie, “Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School,” Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project; August 2012, p. 30.
3. Ibid; p. 31.