Why Educators Need to Step Up and Address Racial Injustice
Today marks 20 years that I have worked in education advocacy, representing the interests of the nation's public school teachers. In 1994, the fight was over Edison Schools and private corporations with school for profit motives. In 2014, the battle is over for-profit and online charter schools. The actors have changed but the plot stays the same: for-profit enterprises have no place in public education.
I work for a progressive organization that I have watched evolve and grow in important and noticeable ways over the past two decades. Its vision and mission mesh seamlessly with mine. And still it can resemble Mad Hatter's falling out with Time, where it's always six o'clock. In 1994, a diversity cadre was established and its Minority Affairs Committee was founded. In 2014, its Foundation presented their Awards for Teaching Excellence—out of three dozen awardees, a scant two were "perceptible people of color."
It's accepted without question that time brings change. But with social justice, the change agent isn't time, it's people—guiding others and being guided in critical self-reflection about unequal relationships and its implications. Be it organizations or individuals, social justice can never be a thing to be achieved; it must be a continuing process and an ongoing struggle toward an intersectional approach that acknowledges race, class, gender, and sexuality and works to break down borders that separate and divide.
As an education activist, my public school advocacy takes many shapes and forms. I support a system of publicly funded, equitable, community-based, and democratically controlled public schools. I support treating teachers as professionals and paying them a salary commensurate with their experience and expertise. I support ideas and actions that serve to bolster the quality of education available to the 90 percent of children who attend public schools. And now more than ever, I support the need for educators to take a leading role in addressing America's systemic racism and racial injustice.
This has simmered in me for some time, and boiled over following the Jordan Davis verdict. What became clear and obvious is that educators cannot be passive about these issues. Do you not care about legal and racial injustices that impact the very children of color you have the privilege of educating?
There are tens of thousands of students like Jordan Davis being taught in our public schools – students who know what it feels like to be viewed as a threat for no other reason that being black and male. How can you not be as furious and vocal about racial injustice perpetrated against your students of color as you are about Common Core State Standards, Bill Gates, and the litany of education topics tweeted and blogged on daily? How can educators worth their salt remain silent?
What gives me hope is that many educators are speaking up and taking action. Indeed, sparked by post-verdict dialogue on Twitter, something amazing happened: a group of educators came together and over the course of about eight hours, collaborated and produced a resource guide with lesson plans on teaching race and racial injustice—taking a gut-wrenching event and turning it into a teaching tool to arm students with the knowledge to better engage these complex topics.
None of this is easy to tackle—discussing race can leave many feeling overwhelmed and disoriented. But educators and education activists must be willing to have these difficult and worthy conversations. Refusal to engage with these crucial issues is refusing to acknowledge the humanity of children of color in your classrooms. It's denying what students of color live each day. Racial injustice is a spectrum of microaggressions, fueled by perceptions, stereotypes, and biases—it's people viewing black kids as less innocent than white kids— it's behaviors that follow educators and students into the classroom and have enormous implications for education.
When a black male student is told by a writing teacher to "write white," race is not a peripheral issue. When a high school wrestling team poses for a photo arranged to look like lynching a black "dummy," race is not a peripheral issue. When Jordan Davis is denied justice—a black teen shot and killed for playing music too loud—and prominent education tweeters remain mum, race is not a peripheral issue.
Clearly there is a need for this conversation. I am the mother of a black male public school student, so yes, this matters to me personally. But when you spend time with teachers, they talk about students by using the phrase "my kids."
Teachers, if you see my son and all the other children of color in America who are systematically targeted by racial injustice as your children, then you must speak up and take action.
White allies and activists, if you've ever used "…disproportionately affects students of color" to shore up your education reform argument, then you must speak up and take action.
The lives of these students may depend on it. The integrity of their education will depend on it.
Student in class image via Shutterstock