Why We Must Have Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity in the Arts: A Response to the National Association for Music Education

By Keryl McCord, Operations Director, Alternate ROOTS | May 4, 2016

Since the writing of this article, Jesse Rosen, President & CEO of the League of American Orchestras, has joined Keryl McCord in speaking out on this matter. Read his statement here

There may be a thousand problems in the field of music education,
but black and Latino students aren’t one of them.

On Tuesday April 26, 2016, the National Endowment for the Arts convened a meeting with national arts service organizations. The meeting’s focus was Diversity, Inclusion and Equity in the Arts. Approximately sixty-four people were in the space, representing a range of arts service organizations including NEA staff, and Chairman Jane Chu.

Arts service organizations were asked to, in small groups around tables of eight, identify the challenges they and their fields face as they seek to address issues of diversity, inclusion and equity.

Representing my organization – Alternate ROOTS, where I am Operations Director – I was seated at the table with Mr. Michael Butera, Executive Director and CEO of the National Association for Music Education. Each of the organizations at the table articulated how we were attempting to deal with issues of equity, inclusion, and diversity within our boards, staff, membership, and our fields.  

Mr. Butera told us that his board was all white and that he couldn’t diversify his board because they aren’t appointed but, rather, they are elected by the membership. Further, his membership isn’t diverse because, “Blacks and Latinos lack the keyboard skills needed for this field.” He also intimated that music theory is too difficult for them as an area of study. It seems that music education is on an order of magnitude of difficulty akin to medicine or law. Yet there are thousands and thousands of black and Latino doctors and lawyers.

He faulted our public schools as the cause of the problem, having all but abandoned the arts in their curriculum.  

I challenged Mr. Butera saying that the issue of arts education, or lack thereof in public schools over the past two or three decades, hasn’t deterred thousands of black and Latino musicians, including pianists, from coming into the music industry – demonstrating amazing keyboard skills. So clearly they are learning music somewhere. (Within the black community I know the church is still the first resource.)

When another member of our table, who said that her organization is struggling with this issue but that they are working on it, pushed back to ask him, again, why he wouldn’t even entertain the idea of trying to diversify his board and membership, Mr. Butera got extremely defensive. So much so that he refused to engage any further and said, “I don’t have to take this. Yes, my board is all white, and they are one of the most diverse boards of any organization – more than any arts organization at this table.” Then he stormed out of the room.

It felt like he dropped a bomb in the space and then just left us to deal with the aftermath. However, what most roiled my spirit was his belief that blacks and Latinos lack the keyboard skills and ability to grasp music theory needed for this field. If Mr. Butera had not left the room after making his remarks, this written response would not be necessary. But he did leave the room, depriving me and everyone else at the table a chance to respond, to try to engage in a dialog. What was said was said publicly, and was so deeply disturbing and has remained with me since our meeting, that I could not, not respond.

The late Dr. Maya Angelou tells us that when someone tells you who they are, you should believe them. I believe Mr. Butera said what he meant, and meant what he said. So I am not raising this issue publicly because I think he should apologize. No apology needed, not to me at least. The challenge is not that he said out loud what he believes to be true. But it is the substance of what he believes that is the central issue and that can’t be resolved with an apology. No. The more critical challenge is that Mr. Butera leads an organization dedicated to music education in our schools, to being resources for teachers, parents, administrators” and providing “opportunities for students and teachers nationwide.”

The challenge is that the National Association for Music Education is a powerful organization – one that interacts with policy and lawmakers at a national and local level, as well as schools, students, and parents. And the head of this organization believes that black and Latino students fundamentally lack the ability, the skills needed to become music educators.  

Thus what I want to know is this: does Mr. Butera represent the point of view of the board, staff, and most importantly the membership of the National Association for Music Education? He spoke with great authority as if what he said is a commonly held belief within his field.

If he speaks for himself then I can only say that on Tuesday, April 26th at the National Endowment for the Arts convening on Diversity, Inclusion and Equity in the arts, Michael Butera did not represent his organization, or his field well.

Finally, I have deliberately avoided making counter arguments to demonstrate the absurdity of Mr. Butera’s statements. He is wrong. From my vantage point his statements were just one in a long litany of familiar tropes: Black athletes lack the ability to be quarterbacks, or to coach a team, or to manage whatever the sport, or to be doctors, astronauts, engineers, physicists, composers, or directors and writers.

I would love to hear Mr. Butera explain his belief to Alicia Keys, John Legend, Stevie Wonder, Ellis Marsalas, Eddie Palmieri, Danilo Perez, Alice Coltrane, Norah Jones, Johnny Colon, or Chucho Valdez or…I could go on and on but why bother.

I hope the thousands of musicians, and artists out there who might read this letter will weigh in, will reach out to Mr. Butera and his board.  Bottom line, his attitude, his belief demonstrates why there must be inclusion, diversity, and equity in the arts. There may be a thousand problems in the field of music education, but black and Latino students aren’t one of them.


One comment on “Why We Must Have Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity in the Arts: A Response to the National Association for Music Education
  1. rodger.french@gmail.com says:

    Rodger French here.

    I know nothing about the National Association for Music Education, but I must say that the fact that the Executive Director of such an allegedly influential organization would hold to, let alone express, such fundamentally prejudicial views is simply astounding as well as disturbing. And, in my opinion, if Mr. Butera can’t deal with some well-deserved criticism like an adult, perhaps he needs to find another gig.

    I consider myself a reasonably decent musician, with a solid background in music theory. There are three keys to whatever success I have had: opportunity, encouragement, and hard work. My musical journey has been unorthodox and eclectic, but I firmly believe that any kid who is given a reasonable shot and is willing to put in the time can become proficient in music.

Alternate ROOTS supports the creation and presentation of original art that is rooted in communities of place, tradition or spirit. We are a group of artists and cultural organizers based in the South creating a better world together. As Alternate ROOTS, we call for social and economic justice and are working to dismantle all forms of oppression—everywhere.