Looking back through the lens of racial justice

I feel very lucky to have grown up in Southwest Minneapolis and attended public elementary, middle and high schools. In many ways I feel like I received an extraordinary education, but recent experiences have highlighted some blind spots for me that I wanted to take the time to write about.

Currently I work for a non-profit law firm that represents low-income people in civil courts. As part of our commitment to fighting for racial justice, staff members have been encouraged to participate in workshops and discussions about institutional racism. It has been striking to think back over my childhood and adolescence in Southwest Minneapolis through this lens.

Specifically, through high school I had always assumed that my social circles and classrooms were predominantly white as a function of living in a mostly white neighborhood in a mostly white city. Even ignoring the fact that this was consciously achieved through redlining, it’s only recently that I’ve recognized how my classrooms (and subsequently, social circles) became increasingly white over the course of my time in public schools. Looking back at pictures from elementary school, I see myself surrounded by Hmong and African-American friends, but by junior year, my classrooms were almost exclusively white.

Once I recognized this trend of de facto racial segregation during my time in public schools, the mechanism by which it had been achieved was not hard to identify. Starting roughly in fourth grade, teachers and administrators began to identify me as doing well on tests and started placing me in advanced classes and programs. Unsurprisingly, these classes were disproportionately filled with students from white families that were economically secure. This process culminated in my being accepted to and attending Southwest’s predominantly white International Baccalaureate magnet program instead of Washburn, which would have been a five-minute walk from my house. In hindsight it is painfully clear that, due to the structure of the Minneapolis public school system, the more “successful” I was academically, the less day-to-day contact I would have with people of color.

The one exception to the trend of segregation was the dual-immersion Spanish program that was offered in my freshman and sophomore years and which provided the only meaningfully diverse experience of my time in high school. White students learning Spanish were placed in history and science classes alongside Hispanic students, and the classes were taught in Spanish. After my sophomore year I learned that funding had been pulled for this program, and I returned to overwhelmingly white classrooms (and my Spanish started to deteriorate).

I write this in the hope that parents and educators in Southwest Minneapolis will take the time and effort to consider how the structure of education systems in a self-proclaimed progressive city can have insidious effects that undermine important goals of racial integration.


Jay Ackley, Southwest High School ’05

Brooklyn, NY