By Sevgi Fernandez
As I look at the state of our country and the racial divide I can’t say I’m surprised. In fact, although formal segregation hasn’t been at play in many years, racism has never left and it plays out in our schools everyday.
With the majority of students in k-12 public schools being of color and the majority of the teachers in these schools being white, the racial biases the teachers hold are cause for great concern. Aside from parents, one could argue that teachers are the next most influential people in our children’s lives. They lay the foundation for how our young people view education and what they are capable of becoming in the future. They are pivotal in how far reaching our children’s dreams will be.
Institutional racism is a pervasive machine that begins to work on a child’s sense of self worth the moment they begin school. It’s a machine that’s been well oiled and perfected over the years. With knowledge comes power and one need only look at the history of racial oppression in this country to see why the white dominant society would want to create and perpetuate a system that makes getting a quality education equal to that of their own extremely difficult to attain for people of color.
“So while our education system is highly problematic—it is neither fair nor equal—it’s not broken. It does exactly what it was deliberately built to do.” C. Royal
If we look back at the history of education in the U.S., we can clearly see how the systematic approach to keep people of color uneducated began.
Although many slaves and free Africans found ways to self teach and there were whites who aided them in their education, there was a significant amount of time in which there were few schools available to them.
In the 1600-1700’s there was a steady increase in schools and educational options for blacks yet by the early 1800’s leading up to the imancipation proclamation, many southern states outlawed the education of blacks both free and slaves. These laws had steep penalties for anyone caught aiding in the education of blacks as well.
In the interest of keeping this an article and not having it turn into a book, I’m go to skip around a bit. So let’s fast forward to 1954 and Brown vs The Board of Education. On May 17, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in schools. Did that change things? Yes, absolutely. Unfortunately the statistics aren’t all one would have hoped.
It’s telling that we live in a country where it took a Supreme Court order to desegregate our schools. What’s even more abhorrent is the fact that since over 200 school districts (mostly in the south) were released from this court order, many quickly returned to their segregated ways.
“But while segregation as it is practiced today may be different than it was 60 years ago, it is no less pernicious: in Tuscaloosa and elsewhere, it involves the removal and isolation of poor black and Latino students, in particular, from everyone else. In Tuscaloosa today, nearly one in three black students attends a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened.” (N.H. Jones)
The effects of this systematic racism are apparent in the African American community across the country, wherever you look. It’s in the hopelessness of our youth, in the violence within our communities and at the hands of the police. It’s in the educational system that is set up to fail our kids and the healthcare system that is either unattainable or so discriminatory many fear ever seeking out the care they need. Rather than educating and nourishing the minds of our young people of color, the system is feeding the school to prison pipeline .
“Young Black men — across the board — score below their counterparts in other racial and ethnic groups when it comes to graduation rates, literacy rates and college preparedness. And many African American men, in turn, are virtually locked out of employment and are filling up the nation’s prisons in disproportionate numbers.” (J. Daniels)
“Nearly 75 percent of imprisonment spending happens at the state level, where dollars are drawn from a general fund that is meant to pay for a range of public needs, including health care, housing, public assistance, and education.” S. Hawkins
So when people wonder what all the protests are about, what black people are so upset about, just open your eyes!!!! Why are our youth rioting??!!! It’s not just about police brutality, it goes much deeper. Look at the reality these young people face everyday. Poor quality education, teachers who don’t understand them culturally, who don’t believe in them, who tell them what they cannot be.
“When black teachers and white teachers are asked to sum up black high school students’ potential, white teachers are much less likely to see black students as college material. And that’s true even when they’re discussing the same students.” L. Nelson
They face a school system that has been designed for whites to excel. A system that is funneling our children of color into prisons at epic proportions. A curriculum that is culturally irrelevant to a huge percentage of those it’s there to teach. A system that is funneling money into prisons while subsequently starving the programs that could keep our kids out of prison. They are insuring the continuance of the cycles of poverty, illiteracy and hopelessness.
This system is purposeful. There have been plenty of studies that have examined why the system is failing African American children and plenty that have offered solutions, yet here we are.
For example, the “No Child Left Behind” law that instituted mandatory testing with the purpose of accountability, has failed miserably. The number of African American drop outs increased by 10% in its first 10 years. One study shows only 50% of the nations girls of African American, Hispanic, and Native American descent are actually graduating high school. The statistics for boys are much lower. W.B. Harvey
- The curriculum is designed by whites for whites.
- The testing is based on this curriculum and once again was designed by whites for whites.
- Schools are concerned with test scores only, not the child, not the education
- Most of our urban public schools are non-white and subsequently underfunded
- Many African American children are misinterpreted and mislabeled due to racial stereotyping
- These children feel the effects of this stereotyping and begin to feel dumb because they are labeled dumb
If we examine this list, we can see why our African American youth are in the state they are in. I was fortunate to sit on the thesis committee of an incredible educator, Chilufiya Safaa, she summed up what these children are facing with heart piercing accuracy:
“The children act out; they take on the labels of being dumb or trouble. They then become vulnerable to the streets, jail, and death. They start fighting each other rather than fighting against the stereotypes and the system which is oppressing them. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Wake up folks. We are steadily heading backwards. Racism and segregation are very real and our young and vulnerable are faced with it everyday. We can’t just complain, or close our eyes and pretend it doesn’t exist. It takes critical thinking and community action. What can you commit to do in your community to address these issues and bring about change? If you don’t know here are some places to start:
- Tavis Smiley Reports. EPISODE 5: Too Important to Fail. Fact Sheet: Outcomes for Young, Black Men. Tamika Thompson
- SELF-TAUGHT, African American Education in Slavery and Freedom. HEATHER ANDREA WILLIAMS. CHAPEL HILL: UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA PRESS, 2005.
- The Impact of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision on Postsecondary Participation of African Americans. William B. Harvey, Adia M. Harvey and Mark King. The Journal of Negro Education,Vol. 73, No. 3, Special Issue: Brown v. Board of Education at 50 (Summer, 2004), pp. 328-340
- http://m.ourweekly.com/news/2013/oct/03/whats-african-american-literacy-rates/. What’s up with African American literacy rates?Story by David L. Horne, PH.D. 10/3/2013
- Racism in K-12 Public Schools: Education Series July 12, 2011, JessieDaniels,racismhttp://www.racismreview.com/blog/2011/07/12/racism-k-12/
- Racism in the classroom: the “soft bigotry of low expectations” is just regular bigotry. Libby Nelson, August 19, 2015, @libbyanelson firstname.lastname@example.org
- Nikole Hannah-Jones, ProPublica, April 16, 2014, 11 p.m.
- http://m.prospect.org/article/education-vs-incarceration. Steven Hawkins
- http://magazine.good.is/articles/our-education-system-isn-t-broken-it-s-designed-to-create-winners-and-losers. Our Education System Isn’t Broken, It’s Designed to Create Winners and Losers. Camika Royal.