The national conversation about race and the criminal justice system has reached a fever pitch. And for good reason: the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, not to mention the non-indictment of the officers involved in these cases, have sparked protests across the country and have served as a call to action to address the brutality and systemic racism that infects our criminal justice system.
For the first time since he first took office in 2009, President Obama has been forced to confront the fact that racism—the real, ugly, systemic kind—still exists in America. And, as he suggested in a speech on Wednesday, it is a problem that often starts in the nation’s schools.
Like several people in my personal chats, I was responding to a deceptively simple question posed in a new article by Fordham senior scientist Robert Pondicchio.
He wonders aloud: I think anti-racism is a mistake. Can I still teach black kids?
Speaking only for my family, and assuming we have some degree of choice, which makes the question relevant, our answer is complete in all its simplicity.
It’s not personal. Robert and I agree on some important educational issues, such as school choice, the importance of pedagogy and practice, and the need for high standards for all students.
In addition, there are other equally important issues, such as race, culture, and social justice, that divide us equally.
This separate entity between Robert and me is not just ours. The so-called education reform movement has been fighting this for as long as I’ve been watching. I’d love to find a solution to the tension this creates, as much as I’d like the cake to be greaseproof, but so far reality doesn’t bode well.
It is probably important to examine the life experiences that shape our differences. In my nearly three decades as a black parent of multiracial children, I’ve had to think again and again about what a decent education means to them. Our family’s goal is for them to grow up to be intellectually, spiritually, and racially confident critical thinkers. This means making sure we screen the books they read, the media they consume, the social contacts they make at school and, most importantly, the people who teach them.
We have no interest in contributing to a new generation of people of color who are treated as if their lives, their heritage, and their place in the world are a subordinate to the white norm. I intend to raise free people, and that starts with making them understand the ways the world will try to limit their freedom.
When I hear the growing backlash against anti-racist efforts in schools, and the obsession with highlighting the oddest failures in an attempt to delegitimize those efforts, I hear echoes of the same white resistance that has historically hindered any movement for racial justice.
After the Civil War, after Reconstruction, after Jim Crow, after desegregation, and after the civil rights movement, whites resisted emancipation. In all cases, calls for social restructuring in support of racial equality were rebuffed as misguided or going too far. In all cases, white racism was plausibly denied by its beneficiaries, and responsibility for racial conflict was placed on those who fought racism.
And here’s another attempt to make anti-racism look like racism.
When I hear white educators and education reform advocates ask if they can reject anti-racism and still teach black children, to my ears this quickly becomes a much more disturbing question.
What I hear is this: Can I remain in the status quo of the white chauvinism that has hurt non-whites for centuries and still have the right to teach on my terms, without questioning my racial convictions, for the descendants of formerly enslaved people in America?
Can I teach girls if I truly believe that a woman’s place is in the home?
Can I teach Ojibwa children if I don’t think the residential schools were really bad?
Am I allowed to teach immigrants if I think they come from asshole countries?
If anything there is a difference of opinion about what a teacher is and what qualifies him or her to teach.
At a time when the historically marginalized peoples of America are once again demanding to be treated fairly and seen as fully human beings in all areas of life, why is it in our best interest to put our children in the hands of teachers who have no curiosity whatsoever about how our country’s dominant systems abuse and devalue us?
When faced with a choice between teachers who acknowledge and address the well-documented racism in our traditional institutions and, conversely, other teachers who reject, devalue and dismiss the legitimate claims of injustice we make, why would we be so foolish to say: Give us a teacher who ignores our struggle to finally be free?
Should we ignore the daily examples of white teachers being filmed making racist comments, calling black students niggers, claiming that nigger is just another word we can all use, attacking black parents for making excuses, and generally expressing their displeasure with black students in stereotypical ways?
Don’t get me started on the racist classrooms that mis-educate our children about slavery, history and race, and which appear in the news with alarming regularity.
If you are a white parent, teacher or reformer reading this, I can understand why you don’t see the problem. For you, perhaps the most pressing problem of progressive racial pedagogy is its impact on your white children, who must live through anti-racist ideals that you fear will reduce them to oppressors simply because of their skin color. Given the work of the right-wing agitators who manage to push this story through the mainstream and niche media, I don’t blame you for the hysteria.
If you love your children as much as I love mine, I understand why you were put under protection.
That being said, I ask you to consider what this says about those in power in America, that if you are concerned about your children being confronted with ideas that make them uncomfortable, you don’t need mass protests to remedy the situation, because presidents, governors, and legislators will quickly pick up on your idea and pass laws to alleviate your discomfort. It’s almost as if our power systems are as unequal as critical race theory claims.
This is the real power. And it’s white. If you don’t want to be questioned, I understand. Ignorance is a blessing, and the dividends of iniquity create the wealth of nations. You are rational in your denial of racism and in your efforts to thwart attempts to eradicate it.
But are you a good teacher for anyone other than the white kids you are trying to prepare for the world they still control?
I doubt it.
As black parents, we must weigh our interests as carefully as you weigh yours. Our only goal is to ensure that our youth achieve the equality that our ancestors were denied for centuries. I would prefer that we all work together as people who share a common cause and want a just society that works for everyone, but in the absence of such a preferred state, I am willing to go as far as necessary to end the continued humiliation of my people.
It starts with my children.
No, you can’t teach them anything if you don’t understand all the ways your systems will try to block their freedom.