Opinion: Antioch schools trustee claims racism behind recent board president vote

Ellie Householder by AUSD.

By Ellie Householder, Member, Antioch Unified School District Board of Education

Many have asked me why, when I was nominated to become the vice president of the Antioch Unified School District Board of Education, I did not accept the nomination. To put it simply, I found the process of selecting the Board’s leadership to be deeply problematic — and racist.

We have 4,193 African American students in our school district and not a single African American has ever served as board president. On its surface, this may seem like a benign coincidence. It’s not.

It’s intentional.

At the December 11, 2019 AUSD Board meeting, Trustee Crystal Sawyer-White–an African American who has served on the board since 2016, who was the top vote-getter in that year’s election, and who holds multiple degrees–was denied the board presidency for the second time. It was the third time an African American was denied this position in recent memory, which reveals a troublesome pattern.

The school board’s leadership changes every year. For context, the person who becomes the president has historically been a non-issue, because it simply happened on a rotating basis. For years, that’s how the Antioch school board worked. That is, until Black women started getting elected as trustees.

Although the position of board president is more ceremonial than anything, the three times an African American trustee was up for the board presidency seat, their “qualifications” and “demeanor” were called into question. As many scholars have documented, such statements are often, forms of racial microaggressions that send the message that “people of color are lazy” and “are incompetent and need to work harder.”

Some may argue that this decision “wasn’t racist” because they don’t view the trustees who voted for this as racist. This argument misunderstands what the problem is – institutionalized bias against people of color. Whether or not the trustees involved “are racist” isn’t the point. The point is that the use of coded language marginalizes African Americans and holds them to a standard that their white counterparts are not held to, which is racist. This double standard is revealing of an educational system which for decades has been unfair to African Americans.

After Trustee Sawyer-White was denied the board president position, I was nominated for vice president. I chose to abstain from the vote because I did not think it was right to vote for myself. At the time, I stated I was uncomfortable. To be honest, uncomfortable puts it mildly.

This marked the second time I had witnessed what I can only deem a corrupt process. A process that has a faint veneer of objectivity, when it is clearly anything but. I had seen the exact same thing happen to Trustee Sawyer-White last year when she was denied the role of president after serving for a year as vice president. So, I took issue with participating in a process I saw as unfair.

That is what I meant when I said I was uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable that some of my colleagues refuse to talk about race. I’m uncomfortable when my colleagues hijack a political process that is meant to serve our youth and instead use it to serve their own interests. This should make many of you feel uncomfortable as well.

As we enter a new decade, I urge my fellow residents to take note of the decisions made by your local representatives and to listen closely to the reasoning behind their votes. Sadly, some of us who are sworn to serve the public make decisions that are far from the best interest of the community. When that happens, we need to have the courage to call it like it is.

With another election approaching, my hope is that we, as a community, can stand together and hold our elected officials accountable. It is through courage, fairness, and honesty that I believe we can begin to move forward as a city and create a school system that is truly stronger and better, for all our students, regardless of their skin tone.

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