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A Conversation With Education Professor Royel Johnson

Professor Royel Johnson wears many hats at Penn State. He teaches education and African-American studies classes, works with graduates, and engages in research focusing on the intersection between race and education.

Johnson has also been a prominent voice across the university as he discusses his own research and common themes currently happening across the country.

We sat down with him to discuss how Penn State is improving since making its plans public for addressing racial inequity and how teachers and professors can make their classrooms more equitable.

Onward State: Can you pleased introduce yourself and what you do on campus?

Royel Johnson: Sure. I am Royel Johnson, a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Education and African American Studies at the University Park Campus of Penn State. In addition to teaching, mentoring and training graduate students, and engaging in professional service, I conduct research, which is my primary activity. My scholarship examines issues related to educational access, equity, and student success, especially as they are shaped by social identities and systems of oppression.

OS: How you would you explain race and education to someone who is unfamiliar with these issues?

RJ: I guess I would say race in education is still an issue because race in America remains an issue. This is evidenced, at least in part, by the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter protests around the county and the racially divisive rhetoric our nation’s commander in chief spews every day. To be a bit more direct, we have systems and structures in our country that privilege white people at the expense of racial and ethnic minorities across every domain of life in this country.

Education is no different. For instance, while students of color represent the majority of our nation’s public-school students nationwide, white students represent the majority of high school graduates. We have to ask ourselves, “Why is that?” It’s certainly not because white students are somehow biologically superior? There are inequities in school funding, student discipline, and access to high-quality teaching, to name a few, that lead to the differences we see in student outcomes.

OS: Many think Brown v. Board Of Education ended school segregation, but data has constantly shown otherwise. Why is that?

RJ: There are so many reasons. I encourage those who are interested in learning more about this to check out reports published by the Civil Rights and Education Center at Penn State. They would be a great resource to start with. But in short, our public schools remain largely segregated because our neighborhoods are segregated, which has implications for school funding and the kinds of resources students are exposed to.

Richard Rothstein wrote an amazing book a few years back, “The Color of Law,” that details how government policies across every level have contributed to the racial segregation of our neighborhoods in America. For instance, through what we call “de facto segregation” whites fled to the suburbs to avoid having to integrate with Black people. This is why Black and Latinx students tend to be concentrated in schools where they are the numerical majority.  

OS: From your research and studies, what are some trends you have noticed between higher education and race?

RJ: That college campuses, especially historically white institutions like Penn State, have yet to invest in the kinds of structural reforms that are needed to foster a sense of belonging and ensure the success of its racially minoritized students. And many faculty members and administrators who would otherwise be poised to carry out institutional change for racial equity lack the literacy, fluency, and will to do so.

OS: What are some ways Penn State can improve in areas where racism has been an issue?

RJ: Well, I am cautiously optimistic about the new Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias, and Community Safety. And I have deep respect for those who have been charged with leading it. The real question is what will Penn State leaders do with the information and recommendations proposed?

I hope we are able to take steps to significantly diversify faculty across the ranks while also addressing issues that impact retention like the broader campus climate and inequitable tenure and promotion policies and practices. 

OS: What would you advice be to teachers who are trying to make their classroom a more equitable place?

RJ: I would say they should first invest in their own personal and professional development as it relates to racial equity. Educators sometimes take for granted the ways in which they have been socialized to perpetuate inequities in the classroom and beyond. So the first step has to include one’s personal investment in their own development, their adoption of an equity-minded perspective as part of their praxis, and their commitment to social justice. That alone will shape the kinds of perspective they bring to their classes, the kinds of authors they select for readings, and the ways in which they engage students.

Johnson’s interview is part of an ongoing Onward State series of conversations with race relations, social justice, and diversity experts at Penn State. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider reading our interviews with social justice professor Ashley Patterson, race relations professor Sam Richards, College of the Liberal Arts Dean Clarence Lang, Restorative Justice Initiative director Efrain Marimon, Multicultural Engineering Program director Dr. Lauren Griggs, or history and African American studies professor Amira Rose Davis.

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About the Author

Owen Abbey

Owen Abbey was a Secondary Education major before he graduated from the wonderful institution known as Penn State. When he was not writing for the blog, he enjoyed rooting for the Baltimore Orioles and Ravens, supporting Penn State basketball and softball, dreaming of all of the ways he would win the TV show "Survivor," and yes mom, actually doing school work. All of this work prepared him to teach his own class of students, which was always his true passion. He still can be found on Twitter @theowenabbey and can be reached for questions and comments at [email protected]

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