Education and Racial Justice: The Need for a Protest Within
My whole life’s work has been bound up in the fight for racial justice. So my heart aches every time I confront evidence of how far we still have to travel until we leave behind for good the ugliness that rips our country apart.
I see that evidence virtually every day in the work I do at The Education Trust. In the voluminous data showing continuing disparities in everything from school funding to access to quality teachers to opportunities to enroll in advanced coursework. In the shameful words and practices of Americans — even educators — who should know better. In the disappointed eyes of the young black and brown men and women who want to serve their country but can’t because they can’t pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test.
And goodness knows that evidence of striking problems in our criminal justice system is staring all of us in the face right now. The grand jury decisions in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner point to serious, ongoing problems that demand not just our condolences to their families, but immediate action. If Trayvon Martin’s experience didn’t teach us that it remains dangerous to be a young black man in America, certainly these decisions call all Americans to action. But so, too, do hugely disproportionate incarceration rates, where young black and Latino males, in particular, are locked up at rates far above those of their white counterparts.
But as I watch many in the education community — from union leaders to so-called “ed reformers” —rush to associate themselves with the outrage that has ignited all across the country, I’ve gotta say that it reminds me of my bad old days in college, when students were all too eager to protest against problems “over there” — usually overseas — but stunningly silent about discriminatory activity in their own midst.
I went to college during a time when campus protests were an almost daily occurrence. But there was a disturbing pattern to the topics on which large numbers of student voices were raised. The most frequent topics were the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa. You can be sure that when the demonstration focused on either of these, there would be hundreds if not thousands of students in the crowd.
But when the black student union took over North Hall to protest discrimination on the campus, there was nary a white student to be found. There were none, either, when MEChA pushed for more Chicano faculty. Or when both groups together had the audacity to suggest that a combined total of less than 10 percent for black and Chicano undergraduates was not exactly enough in a state where such students then represented nearly a third of all high school students.
So today when I see education types raising their voices on problems outside of schools, but utterly silent about problems inside of schools, count me as more than a little bit skeptical of how much they care about racial justice. For to work on the outside without a concerted effort to bring about change in the domain in which all of us work every day feels like the height of hypocrisy.
Now, I get that depriving a black child of a first-rate teacher is not exactly the same as depriving him of his life. And I get that encouraging a brilliant young Latina to enter the local community college because she’ll be “more comfortable” than in the research university that she has earned the right to attend doesn’t, by itself, send her directly to the grave, either.
But let’s not pretend, please, that the countless indignities experienced by many students of color as they wend their way through our deeply inequitable education system don’t have catastrophic consequences, too.
The world of education improvement is a contentious one these days. But despite the issues that divide us, I’m hoping that this can be one that unites us: rooting out every inequity in education, so every child has the chance she deserves.