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Waking Up to the Truth About Race

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Racial segregation is abhorrent as is the racism which underlies it. We thought it was abhorrent to most Americans until we saw the behavior and opinions of some during the campaigns of this past election. So, we confront the truth, disturbing as it is. Racial prejudice, and the dehumanizing belief systems that support it, does still exist in this country. The question is, are we as a nation, and the public schools that operate as the training ground for democracy within that nation, ready to take a 21st century look at ourselves and identify and eliminate any vestiges of racism that reside within us? Or, do we hide those vestiges away in a corner thinking that they are gone or at least controlled?

An Opening From the Arts
It is with hesitation but open hearts that we, two white women, offer an open door for understanding of race and the complexity of this social and cultural phenomenon of racism. We enter this territory not as experts but as advocates for education and for the children (and adults) who are in our schools and are still suffering the effects of racism. As long as we think we know what racism is, we will miss its subtleties. We can never walk in the shoes of another but we can ask the other to teach us, can't we? We can continue to listen, read, watch, and learn as opportunities unfold. We can be willing to be uncomfortable. Then, we can lead away from mindsets that do harm and institutions that limit, rather than develop, potential.  

Thank God for the creative arts.  (Is this our first reference to God in a blog? We do not share a faith but we each acknowledge a power greater than ourselves at work in the world.) In this past year, some extraordinary movies have been produced that deliver a view into struggles and realities of African Americans in our country.  Moonlight, Hidden Numbers, and Fences are three. They disturb our thoughts and arouse our hearts with the insights they allow into other people's lives. They are eye openers that can, if we chose it, provoke a journey to understanding. 

A most powerful documentary, available only on Netflix, is called 13th

Three other contributions from the arts are in the form of books. One is Waking up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving and another is The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. Or, if fiction is a more accessible entry point for you, try Jodi Picoult's new novel, Small Great Things.

Schools and Prison and Race
The 13th Amendment reads:

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States."

The progression from that second qualifying clause to the horrors of mass criminalization and the sprawling American prison industry is laid out with bracing lucidity. We occasionally read or may even speak about the school to prison pipeline, but it is most likely with a shallow understanding of the extent to which we are contributors to that pipeline. It goes beyond the schools in which we work. 

The institutional and economic advantages of continuing to criminalize black people are overwhelming. Welcoming black children with open arms in schools and making sure they learn and meet with success and graduate ready for college and career is not the limit of our responsibility. Why do we even need to write that sentence? Don't we welcome all children the same way, with the same sincerity and professional commitments and responsibilities? Or do we, white educators and middle class educators, know deep down that institutional separation exists within and beyond the school walls? We argue that it is far from intentional. The vast majority of educators and educational policy makers are not acting out of racist belief systems. Rather, there is some ignorance and pervasive and overwhelming frustration and powerlessness to make the changes necessary to lift and support all children.

There is Still Much to Learn
If you work in a diverse district, you may be drawn to this investigation.  Actually, you may already be steeped in this literature and its truth. But, all of us in this predominantly white field of education need to step into the truth of racial bias, of our inability to close the gap, of mass incarceration, and of the loophole in the 13th Amendment that allowed us to get here. No matter whether you work in areas of the country where all the students are white, or whether you work in poor inner city neighborhoods where the student body is predominantly black, or you work in middle class and upper class neighborhoods where you think the black children you serve have stepped away from the business of bias and the discrimination pipeline, all of us have a responsibility to  awaken to the reality of continued institutional racism. 

Answers cannot influence change until we open our minds and hearts and accept what has become a reality. As the Neflix documentary captures our attention; we learned so much. There are more black prison inmates now than there were slaves. And then there is this: The prison industry is lucrative. Inmates, like slaves, work for the profits of some prisons, while not earning enough money to make telephone calls to their families. This is the tip of the iceberg. 

In order to understand the business of bias and race, we have to begin to understand how deeply it is woven into the practices of our society. Only then can we determine our role as designers of the manner in which our black students and their families are understood. Only then can we determine our role as designers of the way our white students and their families are understood. And only then can some of us, those who awaken and are so inclined, take action to join those engaged in the legal and societal changes that we need moving forward.

Still More To Be Done
Schools were integrated as a result of court decisions. Eventually, laws followed. But there is much more to be done. In this case, not only are the children waiting, the society in which we live is waiting.  Modeling changed minds and hearts can begin in the largest institution in our country, our public schools.  It can change the lives of children and of families.

The arts are offering a way to understand these issues like never before.  Learning can be personal, even in private, with the closest family and friends. A quiet revolution begins within when each decides the racism must stop, something must be different for us to be the nation we aspire to be.  Then, hopefully some will step out and discussions can begin. It has to begin with each of us. This is our hope for opening a discussion. It is not a new thought. It is one that has been with us since our founding as a nation. Ben Franklin said, "Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are."

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

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