Category Archives: #blacklivesmatter

“The Fierce Urgency Of Now” – Social Justice Must Be Educators’ Mission

On June 17th, 2015, the 21 year-old Dylann Storm Roof, entered the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  The church, led by the Reverend Clementa Pickney who, in addition to his pulpit, was a state senator, is the oldest traditionally Black Church in the South and has long been a fixture of the struggle for emancipation and civil rights during its almost 200 year history.  According to witnesses, Roof sat down with the dozen people participating in weekly Bible study for nearly an hour before he stood up, took out his pistol and began shooting.  Before he was done, he had reloaded multiple times and left 9 people dead, including Reverend Pickney.  Survivors quickly reported that when his victims implored him to stop, Roof told them, “I have to do it.  You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”

Roof’s victims are Tywanza Sanders, 26, who stood between Roof and his elderly aunt to try to convince him to put away his gun, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, a school speech therapist and girls track and field coach, Cynthia Hurd, 54, a librarian for over 3 decades, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, admissions coordinator for Southern Wesleyan University, Ethel Lee Lance, 70, a sexton at Emanuel Church who had worked there for over 30 years, Susie Jackson, 87, Mr. Sanders’ aunt and longtime attendee at Emanuel Church, Myra Thompson, 59, a visitor from Holy Trinity Episcopal Church who had joined the evening’s Bible study, Reverend Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr., 74, also a visitor to Emanuel Church, and Reverend Clementa Pickney, 41, senior pastor of Emanuel Church and state senator in South Carolina.

The victims of Wednesday's racist terrorist attack.

The victims of Wednesday’s racist terrorist attack.

Dylann Roof, who is white, was captured by police on Thursday. Pieces of his story are emerging, but it was evident early in the case that deeply rooted racial hatred motivated him.  The survivors’ statements make that clear.  His selection of one of the most historic icons of the struggle to abolish slavery and to reach legal equality for African Americans makes it clear.  His own profile picture on Facebook where he is displaying the flags of Apartheid-era South Africa and Colonial Rhodesia, both nations where minority white populations governed to the exclusion of the black majority, makes that clear:

Roof Racist

And yet, the next morning, when enough of the story was directly in our faces to know that racism and a desire to instill racial terror was front and center, a national media outlet and some political figures were attempting to obfuscate that truth.  South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, the first woman elected to the governor’s office in South Carolina, and one of only two women of color elected to a governor’s office in American history, issued a statement stating “we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.”

Haley

South Carolina Senator and candidate for the Republican nomination for President, Lindsey Graham, when asked if the shooting was a hate crime or an act of mental illness, responded saying “Probably both. There are real people out there that are organized to kill people in religion and based on race. This guy is just whacked out…But it’s 2015, there are people out there looking for Christians to kill them.”  Senator Graham also defended the Confederate Battle Flag which, due to a quirk of South Carolina law, flies over a memorial adjacent to the state capitol and is the only flag not flying at half mast today.

As the story unfolded, more Republican candidates obfuscated Roof’s obvious intentions.  Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush initially danced around the question of whether or not Roof was motivated by racial hatred.  Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum declared the killings an “assault on our religious liberties” without apparently mentioning the racial component of the crime.  Former Texas Governor Rick Perry was more willing to attribute Roof’s murders to psychiatric drugs than to racial hatred.

On Thursday morning, Fox’s morning show, Fox & Friends, went out of its way to portray the murders as an attack on Christianity, deliberately setting aside the nature of the church that was attacked and what the survivors were already reporting.  Co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck even went so far as to comment about how “we’re not safe in our own churches” as if Roof’s intention were not perfectly clear and he could have just as easily murdered people in Hasselbeck’s church.

Is someone confused here?

Is someone confused here?

The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial where they said that Roof’s murders were caused by “a problem that defies explanation” went on to state, categorically, that the institutional racism of the 1950s and 1960s that allowed acts of racist terrorism to go unprosecuted no longer exists.  While it is fair to say that the overt White Supremacy of the past is greatly diminished and the influence the Klan once held over elected officials and judicial proceedings is basically no more, it is a horrendous dismissal of reality to say institutional racism no longer exists, and to claim that Dylann Roof’s professed White Supremacist motivations have no explanation.  The disparate impact of policing policies of the past three decades on African Americans is not disputable, and we know that when individuals bring their racial prejudices into positions of institutional authority, that can lead to serious economic discrimination.  And in a very embarrassing example of the power that racism still holds, Earl Holt, the president of the Conservative Citizens Council, whose website apparently helped to radicalize Dylann Roof until he pledged himself to starting a race war, has been a generous donor to Republican politicians — many of whom are now returning his money or donating it to charity.

To their credit, many of the Presidential candidates who have waffled on Roof’s motivation, have now joined Governor Nikki Haley in stating that it is time for the Confederate Battle Flag to be taken down from the memorial adjacent to the state capitol building.

I wish to be very clear here.  What the hosts and producers at Fox & Friends did, and, to a lesser degree, what Senator Graham and Governor Haley, did is an act of erasure.  There is no doubt about what motivated Dylann Roof’s terrorism.  There was no doubt on Thursday morning even though the production team of a major morning program mightily tried to remove it from their “discussion.”  Hasselbeck said the attack happened at a “historic church” rather than a “historic BLACK church” and that omission could not have been more deliberate or more outrageous.  The 200 year history of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is wrapped inextricably to the struggles and triumphs of the African American community in the South, and they did nothing less than try to erase that entire history out of some perverse desire to not name racist terrorism inspired by the very worst in our national heritage for what it is.

I do not know the true motivation behind those who cannot bring themselves to unequivocally state that racial hatred and White Supremacy is what drove Dylann Roof to his actions.  Perhaps they are racists themselves and sympathize with Roof’s seething hatred and fear of black people.  Perhaps they are cynical and see more political utility to casting this as an unknowable act of barbarity or as part of a larger script about religion being under attack.  Perhaps they know that a minor but potent part of the constituency and audience are sympathetic to Roof’s motives if not his actions and will respond negatively in the polls or ratings if they hear White Supremacy called out in public.  Whatever the reason, there is nothing admirable in failing to call Dylann Roof exactly what he is: a White Supremacist who deliberately chose one of the most iconic symbols of the African American community for an act of terrorism as devastating as any in the 1950s and 1960s.

Jon Stewart, setting aside his normal comedic monologue in favor of more sober reflection perhaps summed up that phenomenon perfectly:

I heard someone on the news say “Tragedy has visited this church.” This wasn’t a tornado. This was a racist. This was a guy with a Rhodesia badge on his sweater. You know, so the idea that — you know, I hate to even use this pun, but this one is black and white. There’s no nuance here.

And we’re going to keep pretending like, “I don’t get it. What happened? This one guy lost his mind.” But we are steeped in that culture in this country and we refuse to recognize it, and I cannot believe how hard people are working to discount it. In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive on are named for Confederate generals who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road. That’s insanity. That’s racial wallpaper. That’s — that’s — you can’t allow that, you know.

Nine people were shot in a black church by a white guy who hated them, who wanted to start some kind of civil war. The Confederate flag flies over South Carolina, and the roads are named for Confederate generals, and the white guy’s the one who feels like his country is being taken away from him. We’re bringing it on ourselves. And that’s the thing. Al-Qaeda, all those guys, ISIS, they’re not s— compared to the damage that we can apparently do to ourselves on a regular basis.

And this is where the role of educators has to be considered very seriously.  The victims of Dylann Roof are the latest in a long history of attacks against crucial landmarks in the lives of our African American countrymen and women and against their very lives themselves.  The Black Church has been a cornerstone of African American community and activism for centuries, and its role has subjected it to repeated and vicious attacks from the original Klu Klux Klan of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, through the rise of the Second Klan in the 1920s and the waves of riots and violence inflicted upon African American communities across the country, to the waves of violence against the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.  White Supremacy and Apartheid always defended itself through violence and terrorism, and while the struggles of the mid-20th Century may have legislatively defeated those institutions, we did not stamp them out of existence.  Roof’s attack on a historic Black Church was the first deadly attack since the 1963 Alabama bombing and 1964 murder of civil rights workers, but it was by no means the only attack on a Black Church in the past 52 years.

Americans may like to imagine that we left White Supremacy behind with the 1960s, but it is clear that the hatred still seethes within many of our countrymen, and it is very clear that it boiled over in Dylann Roof spurring him to annihilate members of the Charleston black community as they studied the Bible in one of the cornerstone institutions of that community.  And it happened in a state where a sitting United States Senator and Presidential candidate still feels the need to defend the state sponsored flying of a flag that led 100s of 1000s of men into battle to keep blacks in bondage.  There is no ambiguity here.  Roof is a vicious racist inspired to act by the still present legacies of White Supremacy which we refuse to confront boldly and bluntly.  He apparently self radicalized by immersing himself in an online world where White Power advocates work collectively to stir up racial hatred and to advocate for race war — an advocacy that Roof took to its next logical step.

The result is an act of abject terrorism meant to make people feel unsafe in their most precious institutions, which deprives the black community in Charleston of beloved mentors and family members, and which deprives the state of South Carolina of a remarkable, young spiritual and political leader whose potential for good seemed limitless a few days ago:

As a scholar, as an educator, and as a member of a community still seeking racial justice, it is my obligation to passionately denounce not merely Roof’s act of racist terrorism, but also to denounce those who want to strip it of its historical and social contexts and leave it “merely” as the act of one, lone, troubled young man for which none of the rest of us have any responsibility.  That is a lie.  And it can only be confronted by a passionate and genuine commitment to social justice and for speaking out in defense of social justice.  We cannot allow either the media or our leaders to murder both history and the truth when speaking about Charleston without hearing from us.

The martyrs in Charleston — The Honorable Clementa Pickney, 41, Tywanza Sanders, 26, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, Cynthia Hurd, 54, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, Ethel Lee Lance, 70, Susie Jackson, 87,  Myra Thompson, 59, and Reverend Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr., 74 — deserve our resolve and our dedication to social justice.

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, racism, Social Justice

Explaining Eric Garner to My Children

Very often, I encounter people who wonder how to explain very difficult and supposedly adult matters to young children.  Readers should know that I am not an early childhood expert; mostly, I am a parent of young children whose professional work and studies for the past 21 years has significant overlap and contact with the work of experts in early childhood development.  That gives me a slight advantage, but I would not claim expertise in this subject area.  This is how my wife and I approached explaining to our very young children, Eric Garner and the problems too many of our fellow New Yorkers have with the police department.

Our first premise from a very early age has been to be honest with our children but to seek framing that is within their actual experiences.  Cultural conservatives often seem convinced that same sex relationships and families are fully beyond the understanding of young children, but that seems far more tied to their unwillingness to call such families, well, families.  This was easy for us;  my uncle and his husband are raising three of our children’s cousins, and we traveled to Vermont for their wedding.  For several years, the apartment next door to ours was home to a gay couple raising three children.  It was simple enough to explain to our children that some families have a mommy and a daddy like ours while other families have a daddy and a daddy and others have a mommy and a mommy.  Other families may have a mommy or a daddy, and others still have grandparents, aunties and uncles helping — there are all sorts of families.  When our daughter was old enough to want to know where babies come from, we added that understanding to our explanation of families.  Not so difficult.

Explaining death was actually harder.  When our daughter was almost 4, my wife’s grandmother died.  Unsure of what our daughter could comprehend on the subject, we decided that she had to know, but that we would rely upon the wisdom of Sesame Street whose production team decided to take the death of actor Will Lee to teach children about death through the eyes of Big Bird.  In the scene, the adults have to explain to Big Bird that Mr. Hooper had died and that he could never come back.  They assured Big Bird that the other grown ups would still be there to take care of him, that they were lucky to have known and loved their friend, and when Big Bird demanded to know why things have to be this way, Gordon tells him “Because.”  We talked in terms very much like these to our daughter to explain to her that her great grandmother had just died.  At first, we were not sure if she had understood, but the next day, she took the large stuffed toy goose that her great grandmother had made for her when she was born and carried it with her for the next week.  She understood.

So there is a principle at work here — when faced with difficult situations and concepts that may be hard to comprehend even as adults, talk with very young children honestly and in terms they can comprehend within their own experiences.

The news of the past two weeks has provided another opportunity.  With protests against the grand jury decisions in both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases continuing, our children, now in early elementary school, have encountered another difficult to understand situation regarding justice and racial profiling.  Both my wife and I are contemplating whether planned marches this upcoming weekend are events we want to go to as a family (my wife already went to a protest at Foley Square on the second day of protests).  And on Sunday, I was walking the children home from having gotten haircuts when we saw this:

I fumbled a bit as I tried to explain why that small group of people were singing hymns as they walked up the sidewalk — and why there were 3 police cruisers tailing what was likely a group of Unitarians who had just gotten out of church as several religious leaders across New York City had pledged to do.  So we sat the four members of our family, myself, my wife, our older daughter, and younger son, around our dining room table to discuss the situation.  I did not keep a verbatim record, so this is from memory.

I began by asking my daughter if she remembered anything about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from her MLK Day class last year.  She thought for a moment, and she told us that he had fought to change bad laws and that he wanted all people to be able to sit “at the front of the bus” so he organized people to not use the buses anymore until that changed.  We told her that she was correct, and that that was the Montgomery bus boycott which was part of a whole movement to change laws that were unfair to people.

The next part of the conversation was difficult.  Our children go to public school in New York City, and they have classmates who are African American, but while we have told them about Dr. King and his work, we never framed it as an issue of racism.  To break down their “innocence” on the existence of racism was hard to do, and I was reminded of the characters of Scout and Jem from “To Kill a Mockingbird” coming to realize that they lived in an unjust society.  I’ve always liked Atticus Finch, so I jumped in.

“Honey, what we’ve never told you is why Dr. King had to do what he did.  Have you ever noticed that some people you know have darker skin and others have lighter skin?”

They both said yes.

“The laws Dr. King fought against were ones that said that if you had dark skin, you had to sit in the back of the bus, or you could not go to the same schools as other children, or go to the same hospital, or shop at the same stores.  A lot of people back then thought that people with dark skin were bad and should not be able to live with people with light skin, and they passed laws to force people to live like that.  And a lot of people came together and fought those laws and changed them, and that’s why we honor Dr. King today — because he worked so hard to make our country a more just place.”

Our daughter asked if certain classmates of hers might have skin dark enough to be treated badly by those laws.  We told her that was probably true — but then warned her she could not talk to them about it because it was up to their families to explain this to them when they think they were ready.  We also explained that people whose ancestors came from European countries were often called “white” and that people whose ancestors came from Africa were often called “black.”  Our son was perplexed by this and held up  cup of milk and said “But THIS is white!” Pointing to his own skin, he said “This is kind of peach.”  My wife very lovingly affirmed his observation, but tried to explain that was how people talked even if it wasn’t exactly accurate.

We still had to explain the march we had just seen, however.  “Even though Dr. King changed a lot, everything isn’t all better.  Last summer, there was a man named Eric Garner — you should remember his name, kids.  He was approached by some police officers because they thought he was doing something he should not have done.”  Our kids asked what that was.  “They say he was selling cigarettes on the street, and you aren’t allowed to sell cigarettes unless you are a store, and he wasn’t allowed to do that.  The police wanted to arrest him, but they were too rough with him, they used too much force, and this is very sad, kids, but Mr. Garner died even though he wasn’t fighting the police.  And a lot of people, a lot of people, think the police should not have done that, and your mommy and daddy agree with them.”

At this point, our daughter began to look very sad, but we kept explaining.

“And just this week, it was decided that the police who were there when Mr. Garner died won’t have to have a trial in court to answer for what happened to him.  And that’s made a lot of people even more upset and angry, and they have been protesting this all over the city.”  I felt like I was stumbling, but decided to explain why this case was so difficult for so many people.  “The reason why this is all related to Dr. King is that a lot of times, some police are not very nice to the people with darker skin that they meet.  In neighborhoods were a lot of black people live, some police are too rough and stop a lot of people who are just going about their day and that’s wrong.  So people are saying that those police need to change, and that it isn’t good that a lot of people feel like they cannot trust the police.  Do you remember how we’ve always told you that if you are lost or in trouble you can go into a store or up to a police officer and ask for help?  Well, you still can, but there are a lot of parents in this city and all over the country who wonder if they can because they don’t think the police will help them.  We need that to change.”

I could tell that our daughter was wondering if any friends of hers were affected by this.  Our son was dumbfounded.  He told us that “Some police officers have dark skin. How can they treat people with dark skin badly?”

My wife affirmed his observation, and she agreed with him that it “didn’t make sense.”  She also told both of them that most police “are good people who took the job because they wanted to help people, and they do help people every day. But some of them do the wrong thing and we should not let them do that, so it is important to say something when wrong things happen.”

I also told the children that it was okay for them to still trust police, and that they should trust police and listen to them.  But at the same time they had to understand that “not everyone is going to have the same experiences that you have.  You have to know that because you live in the same city and the same country as people who really do wonder when they can trust that police will protect them.  And we should all make certain that we do whatever we can so people aren’t treated badly because of their skin color.”

Our daughter agreed and said that the mayor should do something about it.  My wife agreed with her, and explained that he was trying to do something about it.  “Did you know the mayor’s wife is black, so their children have dark skin.  The mayor was talking to the city about how he and his wife have had to talk to their children about what to do if a police officer ever treats them badly, and there are a lot of other parents in the city who have the same talk with their children.  All the protesters this week are saying it shouldn’t be that way — no parents should have to have that conversation with their children.”

So our children have their blinders to racism removed, and time will tell just how much it impacts their thinking, but we cannot pretend they are innocent of it anymore.  And while it is painful as a parent to feel obligated to do so, it is far, far more painful for the 100s of 1000s of children of color in this city who grow up not knowing if they can trust the police to protect them or to persecute them…and for their parents who have to teach them the world is thus.  We discussed it with our children so that they can begin to understand the unjust differences between their expectations in life and the expectations of their schoolmates.  We discussed it because this cartoon by Ben Sargent describes those differences far too well:

still two americas

And if our children are going to ever help change that, they need to know about it.  They can understand it.  We need to know how to talk to them about it.

Which is a lesson, as a teacher educator, I need to be more active in promoting among my own students who will some day be teachers and whose practice of good stewardship will be vital for their future students.  Thinking about their own experiences, how they differ from so many of the young people in their care, and preparing to stand up for the dignity of those students inside and outside of school?  I have read many over the years who argue this is not the job of teachers, much like many argue young children cannot understand such complex issues.  Young children can — and teachers’ defense of their students is one of the most important tasks they can undertake.  It is all vital, and it is all related.

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, politics, Social Justice, Stories

What Does It Take For Justice?

For the second time in ten days, a grand jury convened to consider criminal charges in deaths of unarmed black men killed by police officers.  Last week, it was the St. Louis county grand jury that declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  This week, it was a Staten Island grand jury that did not indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo who put Eric Garner into a choke hold during an arrest for selling loose cigarettes.  Mr. Garner, who suffered from asthma and diabetes, repeated that he could not breath eleven times as the Officer Pantaleo continued to hold him around the neck and other officers pressed him against the sidewalk.  He died minutes later.  The entire incident was recorded on a cell phone camera.

Protests are going on in New York City right now as I write this, and protests are planned for tomorrow.  The back to back decisions by separate grand juries to not press any criminal charges against two different police officers in deadly confrontations with unarmed black men leads me to wonder what could it possibly take for an officer today to be held accountable for unjustified force and why these events keep happening to unarmed African American men.  It reminds me of a panel discussion hosted on NPR by Michel Martin on her show “Tell Me More” following the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida.  Her panel of African American men in broadcasting and journalism all discussed “The Talk,” a very specific conversation African American parents have with their sons about behaviors they have to avoid in public in order to avoid getting in trouble with the law.  The panelists wondered what could that talk say now in the wake of Mr. Martin’s death.  I can only imagine what they would say today.

I got the news on my way home from work, and for much of the evening, I kept finding myself looking at our kids, especially our son.  I kept thinking about the experiences that they will NOT have because of their skin color, and the momentary sense of of relief at that was repeatedly overwhelmed by unspeakable sadness and welling anger at the 100s of 1000s of parents in this city who cannot ever look at their own children with the same assurance.

It is past time to admit that the “broken windows” philosophy of policing has been a failure.  Communities that did not practice it saw similar drops in crime since the 1970s, but where it has been practiced, it has led to two generations of police trained to be aggressive and confrontational in the very communities they are meant to serve.  It has led to the vast majority of people in those communities to not be able to see police as allies in keeping the peace but as antagonists who confront and harass people abide by the law.  It violates their rights.  It puts them in danger.  And it makes police work harder and more dangerous — when police are trained to treat entire communities as suspects then how can cooperation and trust ever happen?  And when police departments nearly everywhere have become increasingly militarized, how can we avoid more and more tragedies born of tactics designed for war zones?

This isn’t a problem solely of how police have been trained to work in communities with higher crime rates.  It is a problem of what we who live in communities and neighborhoods not impacted by significant crime have demanded in order to feel “safe” from crimes that we have rarely ever been subjected to.  Our politics consistently rewards candidates who vow to be ever “tougher on crime,” leading to broken windows policing, mass incarceration, and vastly disparate incarceration and sentencing by race.  This has made a lot of people in low crime communities feel “safe” at the expense of the civil rights and hope for all elsewhere. And it has allowed opportunistic politicians to make bank bragging about how their brutal methods reduced crime while blaming communities victimized by those policies for any injustices they have suffered.

We are complicit in these injustices, especially if we keep mistaking grinding communities into submission with making society safe.

I have repeatedly written in this blog that education is a hope based enterprise.  It is exceedingly difficult to help a student learn if he or she has trouble having faith in a future where that learning will be respected and rewarded.  I can only think of two things this week that might provide some lift for those hopes.  Children and their communities need to believe that their anger is both justified and that it can become productively aimed at injustice.  And those of us not directly suffering those injustices need to start rewarding a different kind of leadership than we have for over 4 decades.

And those of us who teach? It is time to think about what it truly means to be stewards of the children in our care.  Will we challenge to comfortable?  Will we raise up the afflicted?  Will we be moral?

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, politics, Social Justice

Asking Hard Questions of Our Privileges After the Ferguson Grand Jury

Last week, the grand jury convened by St. Louis county prosecutor Robert McCulloch declined to indict police officer Darren Wilson who fatally shot 18 year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9th of this year.  The decision, delivered after nightfall in a lengthy statement by Mr. McCulloch set off immediate, sometimes violent, protests in Ferguson, and has spawned protests in 170 cities across the country.  To many protestors, the grand jury failing to indict Officer Wilson confirmed a belief that our legal system is critically stacked against people of color in general and African American men in particular.  As the grand jury testimony and evidence has become public, a number of commentators and analysts have noted that Prosecutor McCulloch’s presentation to the grand jury, far from the normal conduct of a prosecutor seeking an indictment, appears specifically tailored to relieve Officer Wilson of any charges.  As a matter of record, I find those observations credible.

Prosecutors usually present a case to a grand jury to seek an indictment and tailor the presentation towards that result.  Prosecutor McCulloch instead declared that the case was too contentious, so he intended to present the grand jury with “all of the evidence” and allow them to sift through it on their own.  Such an intent plays well to popular prejudices towards even-handedness, but it is usually in a criminal trial, not a grand jury, where jurors get to hear “both sides” as presented by zealous advocates.  For a grand jury to be presented with “all of the evidence” absent any advocate for an indictment is extremely unusual.  Further, Prosecutor McCulloch’s statement on the grand jury decision raised serious questions about how hands off he actually was, and his apparent decision to let Officer Wilson tell his version of events to the jurors without any cross examination whatsoever characterizes Mr. McCulloch as giving the officer a friendly forum in which to tell his story.  That story, described by CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin as “fanciful and not credible”, is contrasted by many of the witness accounts, but Prosecutor McCulloch’s statement to the press only mentions one witness who has offered contradictory accounts.

A week later, it seems very likely that Prosecutor McCulloch went into the grand jury with no desire to prosecute Darren Wilson, but instead of having the courage to state publicly that he would not seek an indictment, he decided to use the grand jury process to get that result with a veneer of due process.

Prosecutor McCulloch’s conduct of the grand jury fits into a larger pattern of both policing and the criminal justice system being antagonistic to people of color, and especially in communities that are predominantly of color.  The reactions that I have seen outside of the street protests, however, are indicative of a wider spread societal problem.  In a wide variety of fora, including ones that typically host reasonable conversations, responses to reporting, analysis, and personal discussions of the troubles with Michael Brown’s death, the larger phenomena that it represents, and the conduct of the criminal justice system ranged from the shockingly hateful to the naively hopeful but ultimately unhelpful.  The hateful reactions are immediately identifiable, and they seem to take the grand jury decision  as justification for something that they have believed all along: that Michael Brown was a “thug,” that he undeniably provoked the lethal confrontation, and that, ultimately, he is solely culpable for his own death.  Such sentiments frequently arise in cases like Michael Brown’s and Trayvon Martin’s, and it is painfully clear that a segment of our population will not accept anything less than a cartoonishly angelic victim before they will concede the least ground on justifying the death of an unarmed black man.

Naively hopeful but unhelpful is a more difficult nut to crack.  These often take forms of laments that race has to “enter the conversation” at all and express wishes that we could be a “color blind” or “post-racial” society where events like Michael Brown’s death at Darren Wilson’s hands are examined without having to consider what role race and racism may have played in it.  I see this wish in New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s most recent column, where he observes that as the evidence in the Michael Brown case grew more complex that people “retreated” into racial divisions.  He front loaded his column with an assumption that America needs “color blind” politics:

Ultimately, being optimistic about race requires being optimistic about the ability of our political coalitions to offer colorblind visions of the American dream — the left’s vision stressing economics more heavily, the right leaning more on family and community, but both promising gains and goods and benefits that can be shared by Americans of every racial background.

I do not think that Douthat is malicious in this wish, but I do think that his sentiment is harmful, and that, for very good reasons, the question of whether or not we can look at our politics and power systems in America and be “blind” to color is only answerable with a hearty and emphatic, “No, we cannot.”

The wish for politics and policy that are “color blind” is a wish that negates the realities of how many of our citizens live on a very routine basis.  While aspiring to visions of our society where all benefit equally is admirable and desirable, to discuss it without affirming that there are existing social and institutional barriers to how millions can enjoy both equality of opportunity and equity in what they need to thrive is to ignore any possible paths towards that future.  In other words, Douthat’s wish for a “colorblind vision of the American dream” will do little good without a color conscious discussion of what exists today.  Professor Denisha Jones of Howard University offers incredibly salient advice on this and many other issues related to discussions of race and racism that are prompted by Michael Brown’s death.  Her comments on the pitfalls of “color blindness” should be taken very serious by people who mean well, but largely do not understand:

I am not sure when it began but at some point in our history colorblindness was created as the solution for dealing with racism. Some have believed that the best way to deal with racism was to be colorblind. If we were blind to race then we would not judge people based on the color of their skin. If we were blind to race then racism would not exist. As I mentioned before I used to subscribe to this belief and remember I am black (very black). I grew up in predominantly white communities and I thought the best way to fit in was to ignore the fact that I was black. But what I learned is that being black is not something I can ignore, it’s not something others can ignore, and it’s not something we should try to ignore.

Being born or raised in America means that we are acculturated to be aware of race. Young children notice racial differences and make assumptions based on those observations. They are aware that their community might not include any people of color. They are aware that only people who look like them attend their school. They are not colorblind. And neither are most adults in society. We notice the color of someone’s skin the same way we notice their gender. And noticing color, just like noticing gender is not a bad thing. Making judgments (prejudice) about someone based on their skin color is a bad thing but simply being aware that I am black is not something we should be blind to. Because it means something to be black in America. It means that I am a member of a group that has historically been disadvantaged simply because I am black. It means that I inherit a legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and civil rights simply because I am black. So to be colorblind to my blackness is not the solution, it is the problem.

Trying to look at Darren Wilson’s encounter with Michael Brown absent any consideration of race ignores the daily reality many young men of color live with in their communities where being treated as if they are legitimately suspected of criminal wrongdoing while minding their own business is a common occurrence.  The peak year for “stop and frisk” in New York City was 2011, and according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, police conducted 685,724 stops that year, 87% of those stopped were black or Latino, and 88% of those stopped were entirely innocent of even misdemeanors.  So in 2012,  NYC police stopped mostly black and Latino men 605,328 times, found absolutely no wrong doing at all, but affronted the dignity and rights of citizens obeying the law.  Combine this with the appalling consequences of our increasingly militarized police tactics, and it is clear that our policy makers have long pursued policies that needlessly exacerbate and create tensions between police and the communities they are supposed to serve.  Largely, I believe, to play upon prejudicial fears of constituents who live in communities that are safe from most violent crimes, and who believe being this “tough on crime” is needed to keep them safe.

I suspect there is another reason, also discussed by Professor Jones’ article, that is behind the call to not consider race, and it is a desire to look away from the concept of privilege and the many ways that people possess a variety of advantages that exist, or do not exist, based upon who they are rather than upon what they have done.  Professor Jones notes how defensive many become when asked to consider privilege:

It also does not mean that you cannot be privileged in one area and disadvantaged in others. You can be a rich white male but also be gay. You can be a black woman but also come from a wealthy family. And you can be a poor white person and still experience white privilege.  So when someone tells you to  “check your privilege” what they are saying is to see how your privilege might blind you to the realities of others. I can be told to check my American privilege when I assume that the American point of view is the one only correct point of view. Or I can be told to check my education privilege when I assume that others who do not think like me or not as smart as I am. And when a white person is told to check their privilege they are being asked to remember that their reality is not the reality shared by many people of color.

It can be difficult to come to terms with privilege for many reasons.  As Professor Jones explains one can mistake the idea of having privilege based on race as an attempt to negate a disadvantage based upon economics or gender.  More troubling, recognizing how one exists in a system of privileges means having to increase awareness of how one might, even inadvertently, perpetuate injustice.  I have often heard the idea of racial privilege being countered by the claim that anyone can be racist, regardless of race, and so the idea of racial privilege is not valid.

I’d like to offer a personal anecdote that, I believe, illustrates the problems with that counterpoint.  It was a few days before the Presidential election in 2008, and I was pulling into a gas station on my way to work.  I usually drive through a predominantly African American small city, and the gas station was on a main street in that town.  As I pulled up to the gas pump, I heard a loud car horn, and I looked up to see a car with an African American gentleman in the driver seat gesturing angrily at me from about 20 feet away from the pump.  Apparently, he was preparing to pull up to the pump from the opposite direction, and I had not noticed as I began to pull in. I put my car into reverse and backed out of the space to let him pull his car in and expected that would be the end of the situation. Unfortunately, the gentleman was not satisfied, and he got out of his car and continued to yell at me, making sure that I knew the “We’re getting a new President next week and we’ll take care of people like you.”  His animosity struck me as rooted in something much deeper that the assumption that I was trying to take his space at a gas pump.

Describing the encounter, I have had more than one person opine that the gentleman’s “racism” was unfortunate, but this is where the concept of privilege is salient.  His anger at me was certainly unpleasant, even unsettling.  His apparent assumption that an African American President would “take care of” people like me was problematic.  I did not like the way I felt immediately after that confrontation.  But his anger and potential animosity based upon my race did not and has not cost me anything.  There were no long term consequences to his assumptions about me.  I have been denied no professional or social advantages.  There was no personal or systemic power that gave this man’s anger any ability to do more to me than make my morning unpleasant.

I, on the other hand, have some substantial power within my professional environment.  I am a professor of education.  I am tenured.  I am a program director at my university.  In order for students at our university to become credentialed high school teachers, they have to take at least two courses that I teach.  If I have unexamined prejudices, those can potentially stand in the way of a young person and his or her chosen career because those prejudices would be backstopped by the power of my institution and validated by the state Department of Education and national accrediting bodies that recognize our programs as valid paths towards becoming a teacher.  Now I have worked hard to have the position at a university that I have, but that hard work does not negate the very troubling reality that I am in a position to keep someone from having a career – and that any prejudices that I leave unexamined and unchallenged can transform from biases to injustice.

Further, and this can be difficult to remember and to confront, despite my hard work to be where I am today, various kinds of privilege assisted me along the way, especially in school.  I am white, so I have never had to convince teachers that I am academically capable despite my race, nor have I been subject to unequal application of near zero tolerance for any rule breaking potentially as early as preschool.  I am male, so I have not had people or cultural stereotypes actively or passively discourage me from considering entire fields of study, discouragement that I actually witnessed applied to female classmates of mine in high school.  I grew up in an upper middle class suburb, so the schools I attended were adequately funded with fully maintained facilities and good class sizes, and my family’s position in the middle class means that a multitude of institutional and social barriers children in poverty face simply did not exist in my life.

None of this means that I did not work hard or genuinely achieve in school, but it does mean that I cannot credit my success solely to that work, and, more importantly, it means that as an educator, I cannot do proper justice by my students by being “color blind” or “gender blind” or “poverty blind”.  Doing so would mean ignoring the real challenges to equity and opportunity that exist in every classroom in every community in the country.  Doing so would increase the chance that I leave my own biases and prejudices unexamined and unchallenged.  Educators have a special professional and ethical obligation to recognize and to confront these issues in our own teaching and in the institutions in which we work.  Anything less is an abdication of our responsibilities.

If we learn only one thing from what we have witnessed in the Ferguson case, that would be a good start.

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Reflections on Ferguson — What does education mean in a world like this?

On August 9th, 2014, Michael Brown, an 18 year-old African American, was shot dead in the middle of the afternoon by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.  Eye witness and police accounts of how the fatal encounter began differ, but three different witnesses reported that Mr. Brown had his hands in the air when Officer Wilson fired the shots that killed him.  As news of the killing and its circumstances spread, Ferguson, a community of 20,000 that is two thirds African American, saw protesters take to the streets where, on the first night, some looting occurred leading the police force to use tear gas to disperse crowds.  On the next several days, different protests were met with similar tactics, and then on August 13th, this happened:

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The Ferguson Police Department, a force on 53 officers, only 3 of whom are African American, made a demonstration of military power at their disposal that shocked many across the nation.  Combat body armor, military fatigues, armored vehicles, high powered weapons and police snipers were deployed to “control” a crowd of protesters that were peacefully assembled.  As night came on, the police decided to disperse the crowd again, and these were scenes that the nation saw:

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Police did not limit their use of force and intimidation to protesters: journalists were harassed and arrested in a McDonald’s for not leaving, and a camera crew from Al-Jazeera that was working behind the police barricades and easily identifiable as reporters was tear gassed:

In response to the events in Ferguson, MO, solidarity protests have happened across the country with protesters displaying the “Don’t Shoot” posture that has become symbolic of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Brown’s death:

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Michael Brown’s death itself and the militarized police response to the following protests raise troubling questions about what it means to educate marginalized populations in the United States today.  Despite legal and legislative victories in the 1950s and 1960s that dismantled America’s legal apartheid state and despite efforts to take White Supremacism out of the mainstream of American social and political thought, it is plainly clear that the lives of minorities, and especially of African American and Latino men, remain in crisis.  This is not to downplay the realities of other racial groups and of women minorities, but it is to highlight a specific set of circumstances that make hope difficult to muster and maintain.  For example, Michael Brown did not have a criminal record.  He was a recent high school graduate, and he was supposed to begin attending college this month.  That didn’t matter, and he was treated as a person of suspect character and potential criminality when Officer Wilson made contact with him for no better reason than he and his friend were walking on the street rather than the sidewalk.  Mr. Brown’s friend and Officer Wilson give very different accounts of how that encounter unfolded (although Mr. Brown’s friend gives a similar accounting of his friend’s final moments as other witnesses), but there never would have been an encounter without Mr. Brown having been approached with suspicion in the first place. This demonstrates a real crisis in American society: to a large portion of the majority population, black men’s dignity and even their lives, do not matter.  It does not matter if Mr. Brown’s life can be shoehorned into a “good kid” narrative, because his presence as a black man on the street was enough to justify suspicion.

Following Trayvon Martin’s death in Florida, NPR host Michel Martin of “Tell Me More” hosted a conversation among a panel of African American reporters and commentators.  One of the most striking segments in the discussion was the concept of “The Talk,” a conversation that many African American parents of all social classes have with their sons.  “The Talk” is so specialized a conversation that many young men’s own sisters are unaware that this is advice that their brothers have received, but it was treated by the panelists as largely common knowledge.  In “The Talk,” parents advise their sons about how to behave if approached by the police, how to conduct oneself in a store so as to avoid accusations of theft (always take a receipt and a bag), how to speak to those in positions of authority.  The gist for general consumption is that it is, even in 2014, not good enough for a black or Latino male to be AS good as his white peers; he has to be absolutely beyond reproach, and, even then, he has to prepare himself for how he will act when, not if, he comes under suspicion merely because he is male and of color.

This is not advice that has a duplicate among white parents in the United States.  Racial hatred in the United States may no longer wear the snarling face of Bull Connor and it may not legally enforce segregation, but it still manifests itself in the daily indignities visited upon men of color and in the knowledge that one can always be suspected of criminality simply by minding one’s own business.  A death by a thousand cuts is still deadly.

While the Civil Rights Movement abolished legal apartheid in the United States, segregation remains a persistent problem because income segregation has been rising ever since we abandoned aggressive integration of schools and communities as a matter of policy. Since 1980, the Residential Income Segregation Index (RISI) has climbed to worrisome levels, and because income and race are proxies, especially in urban communities, communities that are segregated by income are defacto segregated by race.  Mr. Brown’s high school, for example, had only two graduation gowns for the entire senior class to share for photographs.  Young men like Michael Brown are born into communities starved of resources, in possession of crumbling institutions, and segregated from political constituencies that wield influence over decision makers, and when they, through strength of will, talent and with support of responsible adults in their lives, succeed, they are still entitled to be treated as criminal suspects first.

In addition to the individual and collective slights of institutionalized racism, the entire community of Ferguson was given first-hand account of what can happen when people protest such treatment, especially in marginalized communities.  While the militarization of the police in America is not a new subject, it has rarely been on display as obviously and shockingly as in Ferguson, Missouri on August 13th.  Such equipment used to intimidate and harass protesters and journalists in a community of barely 20,000 highlights the disturbing ways in which police forces across the country have been turned into para-military forces and are aided and abetted by federal programs designed to get surplus military hardware into the hands of even small town police departments.  While these resources have most commonly been used, unnecessarily, in drug related raids, the police in Ferguson decided to put them in full view of the nation, making visible the military style police tactics that have afflicted high poverty communities for some time.  It is not merely the presence of such arsenals and their potential use that is worrying, it is the fact that such arsenals represent a tragic shift away from the proper role of policing as serving and protecting a community to the role of occupying that same community.  Officers expected to use and deploy these tactics are themselves transformed via training and experience into a force tasked with putting down disorder; hence, police snipers on armed vehicles taking aim at lawfully assembled protesters and police harassing, arresting and tear gassing journalists.

What has changed is not the treatment of communities (the ACLU made it very clear that militarized police forces take heavy tolls on communities of color), but we can no longer pretend that we do not know.  Even a police department of 53 officers has high powered weaponry and armored vehicles, and they are willing to use them.  The consequences are appalling, and the fact that a democratic society tolerates those consequences is even worse.

Which is what brings up the question of education and what it means to appeal to schooling this society.  School is an enterprise that is premised around hope and purpose.  In order to truly engage with the operation of school, a child has to believe that there are reasons and purposes that make sense and has to have hope that school will lead somewhere desirable.  For very young children, it is possible to appeal to their need for connection and to their desire for adult approval, and, even then, deprivations from extreme poverty and lack of familial resources and stability can greatly complicate teachers’ work.  For adolescents, however, those complications are layered with the child’s own awareness of how the world has worked around him.  Seeing and believing that education holds promise when one has been subjected to “stop and frisk” policies while simply talking to friends on the street or when one’s neighbors have been subjected to military styled raids by the police takes extraordinary optimism and an ability to project a future that is not based on local experience of family and friends.

Such matters are made even harder when an unarmed teen is killed in the streets and when the protests in response are put down with a show of military power in a town of only 20,000.

That we blame young men raised within and conscious of such injustice for having trouble with optimism is one of our country’s cruelest jokes.  Education in this context is necessarily a complex enterprise with no easily scaled solutions, requiring a lot of hard work with each student as an individual.

But a growing amount of our attention in urban education is being consumed by charter school chains who claim, in essence, to be miracle factories.  As proof, they point to student populations that are largely minority and to scores on standardized tests that match or exceed suburban school systems.  Praised by politicians and recipients of lavish funding from venture philanthropists, such schools often enjoy well-appointed facilities and offer well-crafted optics of minority students in well-disciplined classrooms.  On the surface, their claims of having “figured out” urban education look plausible, but the reality is much less miraculous than that.

First, while students in most states are awarded seats in charter schools by lottery, it is not true that the population applying is identical to the general population in the school district.  At a minimum, such students have parents and/or guardians who are aware of and desirous of the promise of a charter school.  Second, student attrition at the charter school networks that claim such miraculous results is typically higher than in district schools, sometimes shockingly so, and the patterns of attrition are not random leading to classes with significantly fewer students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, who have learning disabilities and who are English language learners.  Third, many such schools do not “backfill” vacated seats which means that, paired with non-random attrition, the remaining classes of students are those who entered the school more likely to perform well on standardized tests.  Fourth, many of these schools dedicate substantial time to test preparation and to creating a culture where standardized test performance is the sine qua non of their mission.  In New York State, fully public schools are not allowed to spend more than 1-2% of the academic year in test preparation, but no such limit exists for charter schools.  These are all matters I tried to remind former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein of when he enthused about Success Academy’s recent test scores on Twitter:

Mr. Klein is intelligent enough to know the meaning of the figures and reporting that I put in front of him.  He also knows that “replicating” the results of Success Academy is an inherently limited prospect because even if the charter school chain expanded to take in all of the children that it is willing to enroll and keep, that will leave all of the students Ms. Moskowitz’s schools have pushed out over the years.  Mr. Klein’s call to “replicate” this model is a call that will leave fully public schools full of students who are MORE poor, MORE disabled and LESS proficient in English than they are now even with New York City’s shockingly high RISI.  And I have never known Mr. Klein or his allies to advocate for funneling more academic resources, better teacher support or upgraded facilities to the district schools that would remain in such a system.  Indeed, as Bruce Baker of Rutgers University demonstrates, Governor Cuomo has made funding for fully public schools worse across the board without a peep of protest from Mr. Klein.

And it is important  also to consider what is being praised as a “remarkable” accomplishment.  The Success Academy chain does have noteworthy test scores, but those are inherently limited markers of student achievement and capabilities.  According to my colleague Dr. Christopher Tienken at Seton Hall University, for a multiple choice standardized test to thoroughly measure a SINGLE discrete skill, it takes twenty-five questions:

Either a test is thoroughly-designed and covers very few skills, or it covers many skills poorly. While students in the “miracle” charter schools gain very high test scores on the standardized tests, the more time in school that is aimed at preparing for the test formats, the less time is spent on creative, critical and flexible thinking.

What is galling, therefore, is not that such schools demonstrate achievement in standardized testing measures.  What is galling is that they are touted as having found “THE” answer when it comes to educating students who live within urban poverty, and that they have received both political and philanthropic favoritism even as their models for accomplishment push more and more disadvantaged students into zoned schools that are starved for resources and community.  Meanwhile, so long as these schools are touted as having found “the secret sauce” society at large continues to ignore the deprivations of poverty, insisting that with enough “grit” ANYONE can climb out of poverty.  Taxes don’t get raised on the wealthy.  We ignore how wages have stagnated for decades, the near destruction of the lower middle class and how a college education is more a means of not falling into chronic economic insecurity than a way to get ahead.

Most importantly, we can continue to ignore how income segregation results in racial segregation.  We can pretend that communities which are predominantly minority are not routinely treated as if everyone in them is a criminal suspect.  We can convince ourselves that there is no society wide responsibility to expand opportunity, alleviate the deprivations of poverty, fully fund our education system or directly confront the racism that still plagues how our institutions interact with people of color. In the minds of today’s education “reformers” none of that matters – schools and teachers and kids are supposed to climb up from underneath all of it with nothing more than a tough attitude and a battery of standardized tests.  And throughout all of this, teachers and students are offered no additional support, just more testing and more responsibility, and when the results do not happen quickly, teachers and students are labeled as failures.  It is like adding extra weight to Sisyphus’ burden and then blaming him for the existence of the stone.

Education is a hope-based enterprise.  The most dedicated and talented teachers can inspire hope in the young people under their care, but if society shares no responsibility for that hope, it cannot last.  Michael Brown is dead because he lived in a society that demanded he, and every man with his skin color, prove his innocence at all times.  The community that rose up to protest that fact and to insist that his life had value because ALL lives have value, was subject to militarized police brutality. Until we demand that the powerful in this country stop pushing comic book narratives and stop insisting that all we need for our urban youth is a “no excuses” school, until we value the lives of all of our children, until we admit to collective responsibility, in partnership with teachers and schools, for children, and until we pry racism out of our common institutions, this will not get better.

Those who look for simple answers that demand nothing of themselves and everything of teachers and students perpetuate this cycle.

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