Q&A: Exploring the Intersection of Race, Education and the American South

Derrick Alridge headshot

Curry School professor Derrick Alridge hopes to build a novel organization that will not only produce research, but also drive change on both local and national levels. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

At a time of deep racial division in the United States, the University of Virginia is opening the Center on Race and Public Education in the South.

Curry School of Education professor Derrick Alridge conceived of the center, housed in the education school.

By involving researchers and educators throughout UVA and the local community, he plans to build a novel organization that will not only produce research, but also drive change on both local and national levels.

As a historian of education, Alridge has devoted his professional life to studying the intersection of race and education in America. As a native of a small town in South Carolina, he has a deeply personal relationship with the complex culture of the American South.

Alridge, a professor in the Curry School’s Department of Leadership, Foundations and Policy, founded and directs “Teachers in the Movement,” an oral history project that explores the ideas and pedagogy of teachers in the civil rights movement.

The new center aims to bring researchers and the local community together to examine the intersection of race, education and schooling in the South, with the ultimate goal of influencing education policy. UVA Today spoke with Alridge to learn more about his vision for the new center.

Q. How did the idea for the center come about?

A. In January or February, I pitched the idea to Curry School Dean Bob Pianta. Bob has been supportive of my research on race and diversity issues, so I was not surprised when he agreed to support my idea for a center. I thought that, given the challenges African-American and other students of color encounter in their education in the South and the increasing numbers of immigrants in the southern United States, UVA and the Curry School were in an ideal position to establish this center.

Q. What draws you, personally, to studying these topics?

A. I’m a child of the civil rights movement. I was born in 1963 in a small town called Rock Hill, South Carolina, so I grew up in the post-civil rights era and witnessed residual negative effects of segregated education in the South.

There has always been a dialectic there for me. On the one hand, I love many things about the South, particularly Southern black culture, history and music. But at the same time, racism is ever present. W.E.B. Du Bois identified this dialectic as “psychic duality” or double-consciousness prevalent among many African-Americans in the United States. That tension drew me initially to study Du Bois as an educator who sought to develop educational strategies for blacks to reconcile and overcome their “double consciousness.” My work on Du Bois ultimately led to this idea of building a center to engage race and education.

Q. Why Race, Public Education and the South? What is important about the intersection of those three elements?

A. The South has been a precarious place for black Americans. It was the home of Jim Crow and the primary battleground of the civil rights movement. When scholars study the history of education in the South, they typically focus on issues of segregation and desegregation, but seldom consider what was taking place inside classrooms during and after the movement. What was the experience of African-American students? How and what were black teachers teaching? What were teachers teaching and black students experiencing after school desegregation? These have always been topics of interest to me, but I think these questions have particular relevance today as we consider how to improve academic achievement of African-American students and students of color and provide them with a culturally relevant education.

The events in Charlottesville on Aug. 11 and 12 illuminated the reality of racism in 2017. The center was already in motion, but those events brought a sense of immediacy to our plans. I watched and was not surprised that such events could take place in the South or anywhere in the United States. Members of the center are moving forward even more tenaciously. We will be committed to impacting and influencing conversations on race and we’re going to address issues of race head on in our research.

Q. Why is it important to develop a center? How will a center elevate the work that’s already being done around these issues?

A. I’m aware of research being done on race across the University and research on race and education being done in Curry, but I’m not aware of a center or entity that explores the nexus of race, public education and the South at UVA or anywhere else. Our center will work with other entities to impact educational policy and address what is going on in schools. We don’t just want to talk – we want to influence educational policy through our research.

Q. What types of questions will the center’s research be exploring?

A. The majority of black people in the South are the descendants of enslaved Africans. Blacks in the South also endured decades of Jim Crow. This history must be considered in contextualizing contemporary issues in the education of African-Americans. We hope to explore race and ethnicity as social contexts for youth development; the college and career readiness of underrepresented students and the role of school counselors in enhancing readiness; the mathematics experiences of black boys and factors that mitigate differences in mathematical experiences and outcomes; the ways in which families and schools promote or inhibit the intellectual and academic development of low-income and immigrant children; the role of teachers’ pedagogy in students’ academic achievement; the disproportionate placement of culturally and linguistically diverse students in special education programs; the relationships between racial socialization and racial identity and other developmental processes; social and academic outcomes of black children and youth, issues of diversity, equity, social justice and sustainability/environmental justice in higher education; and civic learning between communities of color and state officials. These are based on the center’s faculty affiliates.

Q. What is your vision for the center and its central purpose?

A. We plan to sponsor lectures, offer a series of community discussions with educators in the area and host grant-writing sessions, among other activities. In fall 2018, we’ll host a two-day symposium. The symposium will explore pertinent issues in the education of African-Americans and the educational experiences of immigrants and refugee populations. We intend to bring to UVA a few of the most prominent scholars on race and education to provide their insights and share their research findings.

I would also like to share that the inaugural lecture for the center will be held Nov. 8 in Holloway Hall. The speaker will be Jerome Morris, the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Urban Education and a research fellow with the Center for Public Policy Research at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

In a broader sense, I have always been inspired by Du Bois’ research program at Atlanta University during the first decade of the 20th century. First and foremost, the Atlanta University studies were based on empirical research and academic inquiry. In addition, Du Bois and his research team were intricately connected to the community.

Following Du Bois’ lead, I intend for our center to initiate and support empirical research projects and engage in collaborative interdisciplinary research across Grounds. While the center will develop and promote the research of affiliated faculty, we also anticipate research projects with organizations in the community.

Q. What other people, groups and organizations will be involved?

A. When I wrote the proposal last year, I reached out to two faculty members whose research I respect tremendously: Joanna Williams, a developmental psychologist whose research focuses on race and ethnicity as social contexts for youth development; and Rachel Wahl, who is doing some exciting work on human rights, violence and education. As my co-conveners, they have both been instrumental in helping me think about the center.

It’s very important that this center be interdisciplinary and that it establishes relationships with other centers, projects and initiatives in Curry and across Grounds. We anticipate collaborations with Youth Nex: The UVA Center to Promote Effective Youth Development; EdPolicyWorks: The Center on Educational Policy and Workforce Competitiveness; The Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning; the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, the Office for Diversity and Equity and of course my friends in the history department, among others.

We’ve also reached out to the Jefferson School (whose mission is to honor and preserve the rich heritage and legacy of the African-American community of the Charlottesville-Albemarle community) and we’ll be reaching out to the public schools here in town, black churches, fraternities and sororities and other community organizations. One thing that we don’t want to happen – and we’re very sensitive about this – we don’t want to be detached from the community.

Q. How do you plan to share and communicate the center’s work with the community at large?

A. To start, we will build on relationships established by center faculty with organizations and people in the community. Those relationships will be very important.

Our website will be interactive and feature blog essays by affiliate faculty members of the center – essays and thought pieces that will be based on research and will keep the center engaged with the current issues related to race and public education throughout the South. We also plan to co-sponsor lectures with community organizations and involve the public schools directly with our work.

Researchers, in general, don’t always do a good job presenting their research to the public in a clear and concise way. We want to make sure we produce and transmit research that the community can use and that will not be full of academic jargon. We want people to feel welcome sharing their ideas with us.

Media Contact

Laura Hoxworth

School of Education and Human Development