Leading while black: reflections on the racial realities of black school leaders through the Obama era and beyond

Reviewed by Asia L. Lyons, University of Colorado - Denver

The autoethnography, Leading while black: reflections on the racial realities of black school leaders through the Obama era and beyond examines the space in which Black educational leaders must operate to continue the work of seeking an equitable education for students of color.  The author calls into question the possibility of Black leaders’ who work in suburban districts ability to stay mentally healthy while experiencing humiliations inflicted by members of all levels of the educational hierarchy.  

The author argues that to ward off racial battle fatigue and naive hope, one must choose racial realism and a commitment to struggle.  Because race is a central theme of the book, the author has chosen critical race theory in education (Ladson-Billings, G, 1998), a branch of critical race theory (Bell, D. et al., 2005) as a frame in each chapter in which he answers the question: What does it mean to lead while Black?

Chapter one centers on conversations that the author had with his father-in-law, John Buckner a building principal with many years of experience in education.  Although the author idolized his father-in-law,  when speaking about the power of a Black principal in suburban school districts, the author doubts Buckner’s powerlessness to make changes in his school.  

After several conversations regarding the problem of the achievement gap and possible solutions, Buckner explains, “Floyd, what you will find throughout your career is that there are some people out there, regardless of race, who have a hard time being led by a Black person” (p.4).  With this comment as the backdrop, the author explains his waning optimism for a new America as the United States prepares to elect its first Black president. 

Chapter two, appropriately named, “Between Carlton Banks and Django Unchained: Racism as Humiliation,” methodically analyzes how racism is exhibited as racial humiliation directed at the Black leader and Black students.  Cobb uses a triangulated figure to illustrate the need for the victim of racial humiliation to be perfect to be believed.  “Unfortunately, the perfect victim rarely exists, and the constant vigilance required to predict perpetrators’ actions is psychologically taxing, making the dynamic of racism and humiliation so powerful” (p. 39).  Further, Cobb contends that microaggressions are a collection of micro-humiliations, small but consistent humiliations that force the educator to question their self-worth.  

He writes that as an educational leader he has seen micro-humiliations be directed at Black students, specifically when speaking of the achievement gap.  This chapter goes beyond naming racism as a reason for the unequal treatment of Black students and leaders.  Rather, Cobb is careful to name the specific forms of racial humiliation and provides examples of each using cultural, historical and social examples to make the points clear. 

In chapters three and four Cobb explains that high-ranking spaces are not exempt from racial humiliations in the field of education.  In “The Miseducation of the Black Leader” Cobb writes about his once held belief that status as a well-educated, high-ranking leader would give him the respect that he deserves. Chapter three outlines how Black leaders are profiled regardless of educational status.  Cobb is meticulous in naming this profiling, “Rather than being followed around a store where we do not appear to belong we find our legitimacy being challenged, our authority utterly disregarded, and our ideas unnecessarily questioned or dismissed outright by those who hold similar beliefs” (p. 75).  

He also includes a table that describes the characteristics of mobbing, emphasizing that mobbing can happen to anyone of any race but is more common in predominantly White environments.  Comparing his experience with that of former President Barack Obama, Cobb explains that both he and Obama have come to realize that a double consciousness (Continuously comparing oneself to the White supremacist society where one lives. ) is permanent and necessary for survival.

     Cobb explains in chapter four that educators focused solely on diversity and deficit-minded educator will cause racial battle fatigue upon Black leaders who make strides toward leveling the playing field for Black students.  Staying within the frame of critical race theory, he suggests Black leaders prepare to traverse the racial battlefield in education by becoming racial realists.  Using a theoretical framework for transformational change, called leading while Black (LWB) Cobb explains that equity-minded Black leaders who are committed to struggle must adopt the belief of racial realism. This type of realism contends that racism is permanent, but the work of fighting against it is necessary regardless.  Without this commitment to racial realism, leaders can expect only to have naïve hope which leads to racial battle fatigue.   

            The last chapter, “Still Fighting for Freedom: #BlackLeadershipMatters” finds Cobb committing himself to the work of resistance and struggle for the benefit of Black students.  He acknowledges that he had made the mistake of believing that educational equity work would be easy. “The truth is, when we make the decision to address educational equity we are not signing up for easy, we are signing up for struggle” (p. 113).  However, he remains resolute as he faces the reality of what it means to be a Black leader.  Cobb asks that Black leaders and aspiring Black leaders remember that their presence matters and that the work cannot continue without the collective fight.

For Black educators who are not in leadership but are seeking insight into how to name and navigate the racially charged field of education, Leading While Black: Reflections on the Racial Realities of Black School Leaders Through the Obama Era and Beyond is a perfect guidepost. This book is also valuable for White leaders who are eager to understand how they can partner with Black leaders to close the opportunity gap for Black students.  With the careful weaving of vignettes with research, it is a well-written nod to all Black leaders of the past and present and to those Blacks in education who see themselves leading in the future.


[1] Bell, D., Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2005). The Derrick Bell reader. New York University Press.
[2] Cobb, F. (2017). Leading while black: Reflections on the racial realities of black school leaders through the Obama era and beyond. Peter Lang.
[3] Ladson-Billings, G. (1998, 01). Just what is critical race theory and what's it doing in a nice field like education? International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1), 7-24. doi:10.1080/095183998236863