Sarah Manski’s abrupt withdrawal from the race for Seat 5 on Madison’s School Board two days after the primary is unethical any way you look at it. Manski’s decision to run despite her uncertainty about whether she would remain in Madison, and to wait until after the primary to withdraw, was unfair to her supporters, other candidates and, most importantly, students and teachers, who have been denied their right to be supervised by board members elected through a fair and open democratic process.
Manski’s conduct during the race is all the more pernicious given recent debates about racial disparities in Madison schools, and her withdrawal points to the white privilege that is rampant in liberal Madison. As a result of Manski’s withdrawal, another white person will win the race by default, while a third candidate, a woman of color with a strong racial justice platform, will not appear on the ballot. While none of us knows Manski’s intentions and it’s counterproductive to speculate, this feels to many people — especially to people of color — like a white person, backed by a progressive white community, manipulated an election to keep Ananda Mirilli out of office. As white people, we too are learning that it is not the intent of our actions but rather the impact that is most important in understanding how we are complicit in racism.
It is not just Manski’s withdrawal from the School Board race that makes apparent the prevalence of white privilege and systemic racism in Madison. Our School Board has an overwhelmingly white majority despite the fact that 55 percent of district students are people of color. Both covert and overt racist scapegoating and stereotypes have been prevalent in the School Board campaigns and public discourse about the achievement gap: from the framing of students and families of color as “Madison’s urban problems” to the spreading of rumors that candidates of color are anti-union and in favor of school privatization — despite very clear campaign platforms and facts that demonstrate otherwise. The challenge James Howard is facing to his seat simply because he voted for Madison Prep and advocates that the district hire more staff of color further demonstrates the retaliation and suspicion people of color are facing post-Madison Prep.
Such simplistic, divisive thinking that if you’re for Madison Prep you must be anti-union and in favor of school privatization intellectualizes something that is an extremely painful reality — the racism families of color experience in our district.
As white people it is hard for us to even imagine what it would be like to have a child facing the barriers students of color experience. It’s time those of us who are white start feeling this reality: What if almost all of my child’s teachers were of a different race? What if my child had to learn a curriculum based on the norms of another culture, which erased the histories and contributions of her people? What if I knew that my child’s demographic peers faced frighteningly low graduation rates? What if I saw my child becoming disengaged over time and then labeled a “troubled kid” even though I knew how talented and ambitious he is? What if my child’s disengagement from school landed her in jail or prison? And what would it feel like for all of this to happen alongside a generally disconnected white liberal Madison refusing to feel the pain of my lived reality, shooting down my proposed solutions as though my own experiences mean nothing, telling me this is all really just an issue of “poverty,” and then retaliating against me for advocating for my child?
It’s time for those of us who are white to listen to people of color, feel the pain and urgency of families of color, and work together to create promising futures for every single one of our children.
Kristen Petroshius and Ali Brooks are members of Groundwork, a community organization in Madison.