A Resonating Message on the White Moderate

Written on 16 April 2015, 06:38pm under Homegrown

Fifty-two years ago today Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sat in a grimy jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama and composed what would become “one of the most iconic documents of the civil rights movement.

Letter from Birmingham Jail is one of my favorite of Dr. King’s writings. The letter was a response to white ministers who chastised Black civil rights protestors and urged them to stop demonstrating. King’s 1963 letter lays out in the most dynamic prose why protesting segregation in Birmingham – a stronghold of virulent racism and Jim Crow laws – was neither “unwise” nor “untimely.”

As a writer, I am struck at the skillful way Dr. King answers the criticism leveled, using secular and spiritual references, and crafting a piece of writing both fiery and constrained. As an insistent voice for racial equity and justice in education, I am struck by how much the white clergy in Letter from Birmingham Jail resemble white education activists.

Dr. King created a seminal work of the Black civil rights era. Almost 7000 words castigating white silence. A letter that continues to inform and inspire.

My Dear Fellow Education Activists:

Today, urban school closures are ripping apart Black communities. Black students are expelled at a rate three times higher than white children. Black children are less likely to be in well-funded, well-resourced schools and more likely to be taught by inexperienced, under-prepared teachers.

All of this is well known. Yet your attention stays riveted on ESEA bills, Common Core, and a multitude of priorities and projects. When activists of color endeavor to bring racial inequalities and unjust practices to the forefront of education advocacy, we are routinely scorned, rejected or ignored.

Why do you continue to trot out tired tropes about “colorblind education” and reverse racism when we call for more teachers of color and bilingual teachers? How can you continue to shirk responsibility for eliminating racial disparities in education? There’s no defense for refusing to make racial equity and social justice the focus of all education and policy discussions when children of color are the majority in public schools.

And please tell me. When is the right time to make the school-to-prison-pipeline the central and pivotal issue in education activism? Nationally, six out of every 1,000 students were referred to law enforcement agencies in the 2011-12 school year. Black and Latino and special-needs children are being pushed out of classrooms and into the criminal justice system for kicking a trash can. Delivered by schools into the waiting arms of the courts and police – the same police that kill Black children playing with toy guns.

It is distressing to think that these grave conditions confronting our children of color don’t rise to a level of prominence on your activism docket. So I must conclude that children of color are merely props for you to further your agenda. Not the protagonists in your education story who will be victorious.

What should disturb your conscience and impel you to act renders you disinterested. One day education will recognize its real heroes.

Yours for the cause of fundamental equity and change,
Melinda D. Anderson

“I’m the architect of my filter bubble; it’s the only way to be sure that the choir to whom I’m preaching is real, and reasonably intelligent.”
Today a woman I blocked on Twitter learned that not everyone she wishes to “push through…disagreements with” cares to dedicate one iota of energy to such an effort. And goodness, what followed. What seemed like an ordinary April Fool’s Day turned into a social media temper tantrum thrown by a motley crew of fools.

If only Erika Sanzi could bottle and ship those waterworks, California’s historic drought would be solved.

While Erika and her merry band of misfits in education reform continue to wring hands and wail, what is conveniently overlooked in the calls for “civil discourse” is that there’s nothing civil about what I observe in public education today. And those who are taking the brunt of the punishment look a lot like me, my son and his friends. They don’t look like Erika Sanzi or the Education Post mouthpieces, who seem to think that a “better conversation” is the path to “better education.” Because everything we’ve ever gained for Black and Brown students in education throughout history has come from civil discourse and polite disagreement. Not.
So in short, I wish Erika the best with her crusade to bring inclusive, open-minded discourse to the Internet. Too bad the Walton family, which funds her blog musings, doesn’t comport to the same principles for its Walmart employees.In the meantime, I’ll be @mdawriter. Blocking.

“The customer is always right” is a basic tenet in business but not in education. While teachers and administrators and policymakers and taxpayers engage in rhetorical wrestling matches, public education continues to ignore and operate counter to the needs and wants of its true customers: students. Listening to your customers is how you build and grow and succeed over time. And when you show disregard for customers, there’s often a price to be paid.

A look at history reveals a long and honorable tradition in education of students of color feeling a certain kind of way about being marginalized and disenfranchised by their public schools, and flexing their consumer muscles.

In 1964, Black and Puerto Rican students boycotted New York City public schools to protest segregation. Bayard Rustin, fresh from orchestrating the 1963 March on Washington, brought his consummate organizing skills to the campaign. Hundreds of thousands of students and their supporters participated in the walkout to oppose the city’s pattern of de facto segregation.

A year earlier Black students in Chicago staged a one-day walkout to desegregate the public schools and call attention to overcrowded and under-resourced schools attended by Black children. In what’s been hailed as “one of the largest and most overlooked civil rights actions of the 1960’s” more than 200,000 students – about half of Chicago Public Schools enrollment in 1963 – stayed out of school. This was an unprecedented student protest, with “customers” taking to the streets to voice their frustrations.

More than 50 years later, these mass actions for educational justice hold lessons for current students. Many have been inspired by these 1960s demonstrations. Their activism embodies the spirit and strength of those who fought for educational equity during an earlier civil rights movement. This is powerfully on display in Montgomery County, Maryland.

With the search for our next superintendent in full swing, Black and Hispanic teens put forth their list of priorities for the new hire. In bold and honest detail they shared stories of being viewed as “academically inferior,” being steered to community college as white students are guided to pursue four-year higher education, and feeling isolated, stigmatized and unwelcome in the learning community.

This comes on the heels of a successful rally last spring where hundreds of students from the countywide Minority Scholars Program raised awareness and called for accountability in closing Montgomery County’s large “achievement gap” between Black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian peers.

And not to be overlooked, as One Montgomery’s blog post noted, “Speakers during the rally made repeated comparisons to other youth movements in history, from the East Los Angeles Walkouts in 1968 to the 1976 Soweto uprising in South Africa.”

Youth voices – the customers – need to be heard and respected.

There are two common myths about Black children that run in the background of policy and education discussions like Muzak. And like Muzak, it’s impossible to get the tune out of people’s heads.

The first is the absentee Black father. It’s a lie that’s been given cheerful support on the left and on the right, in politics and in the media. Irrefutable evidence shows that Black fathers are more involved in their children’s lives than dads from other racial and ethnic groups. Yet the stereotype endures.

The second is the fight for educational access and equity for Black children began with Brown v. Board of Education. Public schools have long been the sites on which the struggle for equity has been fought. Black parents have always demonstrated the capacity to act forcefully to gain quality schooling for their children. And the fight for equitable education in the Black community did not begin with a Black third-grade girl in Topeka, Kansas.

Because of the bold courage of one Black father – a former slave and one of the first Blacks to migrate to the West – a monumental achievement was accomplished for Black children in California on March 1, 1890. Excerpts from news reports and historical summaries tell the story in all its glorious detail.

(Edmund Edward) Wysinger…brought his son Arthur to Visalia (California) High School on Oct. 1, 1888 and said, “Here is my boy to put in your school. He was told by the teacher, S.A. Crookshank, to take his son to the “colored” school, thus excluding him from a public school established for white children. Crookshank denied Wysinger’s request on the grounds that Visalia’s Board of Education provided separate schools for black children. So began a two-year journey through California’s judicial system that ended in California’s highest court, a journey that saw the end of the notion of separate-but-equal in area public schools.

Edmund Wysinger…filed a writ of mandate on behalf of his minor son, Arthur, on October 2, 1888, challenging a public institution’s authority to deny a group its constitutional right because of race, color, or national origin. On March 1, 1890, the California Supreme Court, in Wysinger v. Crookshank reversed a lower court decision and ordered 12-year-old Arthur Wysinger admitted to Visalia’s regular school system.

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” – A quote frequently attributed to Mark Twain but actually comes from Charles Spurgeon, a British preacher from the 1800s.

#TodayInBlackHistory is laced up and ready. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

Cease and Desist: How NOT To Celebrate Black History Month

Written on 25 February 2015, 08:16pm under Homegrown

I have a real love-hate relationship with Black History Month. I understand the kinship for a month when America gives focused and concentrated attention to the remarkable achievements and contributions of Black Americans. Cue violins.

I also know the month of February to be a long slog through cringe-worthy moments. After repeated spells of stupidity, even the heartiest devotee of Carter G. Woodson would decide enough is enough. With February 2015 coming into the rear-view mirror, let’s take a look back at the month that was.

Lip-Smacking Racism
This one is a recurring soap opera. A school creates a Black History Month menu with some combination of fried chicken, collard greens, black eyed peas, watermelon and / or cornbread. For the uninitiated, apparently these are all foods that only Black people eat, only Black people like, and signify Black History Month is underway. Are these foods racist? No. What’s racist is associating them with Black people, fueling a stereotype that is rooted in “a lot of racist history.” Why we have to review this every February is bewildering. But I’m sure we’ll encounter it again. Just serve fried chicken, collard greens, black eyed peas, watermelon and cornbread year-round and avoid the mea culpa.

“Today, You Get to Be A Slave”
This one is mind-numbing. I can’t begin to summarize the far-reaching depths of poor decision-making that would lead “educators” and “scholars” to create a digital simulation game where students can adopt the role of a 14-year-old slave girl, earning badges that could lead her to freedom – and funded with tax dollars to make it even more despicable. Rafranz Davis, an instructional technology specialist, uncovered this outrage and immediately took to social media, putting a spotlight on this damaging educational material and calling all parties to account. This episode left me disgusted – inviting students to role-play an escaping slave is just gross and wrong! – but not surprised. Slavery is taught in schools in such a splintered and fragmented way that the inhumanity, injustice, brutality and cruelty are completely erased. Slavery is as much a part of American history as Washington crossing the Delaware. That would be the same George Washington whose dentures were made with the teeth of his slaves. Yet another pertinent fact they never teach in school.

Kids Will Be Kids
This one could have happened any month. But it happened in February. Oh, the irony is rich. In Texas, white students decided to welcome a mostly-Black high school by flashing “white power” signs during their basketball game. One student claimed the sign was part of a “cheer routine” based on the home team’s blue and white team colors. No one could explain “power” however. Maybe the Flower Mound basketball team doubles as the Power Rangers? If youngsters are going to be racist, they really need to be quicker on their feet. In the end, out of feeble excuses, the students admitted they intended to spell out a racial slur. And the district seems fixated on the fact that the signs were “displayed for no longer than 30 seconds.” Just long enough to instill hate and fear.

T-minus four days until “Farewell, Black History Month 2015!”

I do not always feel colored. Even now I often achieve the unconscious Zora of Eatonville before the Hegira. I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.
— How It Feels to Be Colored Me by Zora Neale Hurston

Bethesda Chevy Chase High School is in Montgomery County, Maryland – a suburb of Washington, D.C. In this video, Black and Hispanic students share the painful struggles of being a student of color in schools where they are thrown against a sharp white background. Where they must dodge the daily indignities of racial microaggressions – a fancy word for insults, rudeness and insensitivity that demeans a person’s racial identity or heritage.

That children’s saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Lies. All lies. These students show in heartbreaking and vivid detail how deeply words can cut. And what are left behind are the memories and scars that form from racially-charged words and incidents.

These young people are brave to speak their truth to “…give voice to those who suffer from ill perceptions” and “expose the harm of racial stereotypes in high school as well as bring awareness to the achievement gap.” Be brave enough to listen and care. And courageous enough to act on what you hear.


Awakening a Black Child’s Consciousness and Curiosity

Written on 29 January 2015, 08:32pm under Homegrown

As a writer on race, ethnicity and culture in education, my frank words and activism are influenced and informed by my experiences as a mother. I read the research. I listen to the scholars and experts. And all of that data and information is filtered through the prism of a Black mom with a Black son in public schools.The link between police in schools and overcriminalization of Black youth is about social justice. It’s also about whether my son could be next. Suspending Black boys at a disproportionate rate for non-violent infractions is the symptom of a racist and unjust system. It’s also a real thing that happens in public schools to students who look like my son. The importance of culturally relevant materials and diverse books is a prized educational value that moves from theoretical to concrete when my son is presented with a summer reading list with not one author of color.I spend a lot of time documenting and commenting on outrages, so with admiration and appreciation I can share that something special is happening in my son’s ninth-grade Honors English class. With the new semester comes a new teacher. And a refreshing teaching philosophy.

Unless I’m in that book, you’re not in it either. History is not a procession of illustrious people. It’s about what happens to a people. Millions of anonymous people is what history is about. –James Baldwin
In the last three weeks my son was assigned a project on Emmitt Till (during which he learned for the first time that Till died on my son’s birthday!) Despite my prodding, he was lukewarm on seeing “Selma” until this English assignment. After seeing “Selma” he now wants to learn more about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the horrific act that opens Ava DuVernay’s powerful movie. And his English class just started “To Kill A Mockingbird,” opening the door to more spirited conversations on race relations.Interestingly, somewhere in his recent reading, he also settled on the belief that Coca-Cola and Pepsi are racist and decided to boycott both corporations. His historical take on these soft drink companies is accurate. His decision has made shopping for beverages and snacks a meticulous exercise requiring thorough assessment. As I do backflips inside, watching my child learn, grow and sharpen his social justice concerns.In real-time I am seeing how culturally relevant teaching helps students develop critical-thinking and analytical skills, as well as disrupt student perceptions – laying the groundwork for adults who confront and challenge assumptions and structural inequalities. Seeing our history and culture reflected in his classroom has awakened my son’s consciousness and curiosity.

Because he’s a teenager, I guard against showing too much exuberance. For fear that anything Mom likes is questionable. But just between us…

Langston Hughes, poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Annie Lennox sang, “Hold your head up, keep your head up” about dreams. I wonder about the dreams of Black schoolchildren in St. Helena Parish School District in Louisiana whose schools were officially integrated on this day – January 8 – in 1989.It was the oldest integration lawsuit in the United States, filed in 1952 by the NAACP and John Hall, a Black construction worker and father of 14. When Black parents embarked on this legal pursuit, the most popular TV show was “I Love Lucy”, a new car cost $1,700 and Dwight Eisenhower had just won a landslide election to become the 34th U.S. President.

As decades passed, and the original plaintiff’s children and grandchildren passed through the school system, you have to wonder if even they could have foreseen the lengths to which white parents and rabid racists opposed to integration were willing to go to maintain their racial hierarchy.

In 1952, he asked the board for a new black school. Officials told him there wasn’t enough money, but they offered a deal: Build the school yourself and the parish will furnish it. The black community pitched in their meager assets and their elbow grease to build a new school, but then Hall was told there was no money for furnishings.

“I told him right then ‘I’m going to take my children up there to go to school with the white folks,’ ” he said. “He took him a good laugh. He and his crew had a big fun-making deal about it, I understand.”Hall didn’t laugh. He, his father, and two other blacks who still want to remain anonymous turned to A. P. Tureaud, an attorney for the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

“They said ‘you’re going to have some mad white folks here,’ ” Hall said. “I said I was already mad.” After all, he said, the black residents faced “nothing more than talk. All kinds of threats and talk.”

Although the Supreme Court ruled against segregated schooling in 1954, Hall’s suit and scores of other desegregation cases floated in the courts for years.

The racial animosity – dare I say hatred? – from whites regarding the integration lawsuit still lingered enough 40 years later to make some Blacks want to remain anonymous. And note that Black parents built their own school and only after the school district reneged on its promise did they pursue integration. For this Black community, Black and white children under the same roof was not the goal – it was a means to an end. “I wanted my children to get an education…,” said Hall. Yes, well, as I was saying.Over the course of almost four decades – as their Black neighbors morphed from Negroes to Blacks to African Americans – these upstanding white citizens in St. Helena never wavered. Even as their school district struggled to maintain segregated schooling. So what brought an end to this absurdity? Not a racial epiphany, but an economic reality.

“Segregation ended because the district – one of Louisiana’s poorest – couldn’t afford to keep it.”

The first day of the New Year. Having surveyed the previous year, we set out to make a change, sincere in our commitment on January 1 that this time will be different. New Year’s resolutions bear a striking resemblance to school integration: a worthy goal that quickly fizzles without willpower and a plan of action.Too often lost in the gushing idealism of Brown v. Board of Education and the kumbaya of integrated schools are the many under-told histories and stories of racialized hardship – for Black teachers and Black students. Like the account of Dorothy Counts.In 1957, Dorothy Counts was the first Black student to integrate Harry Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. By now we know the drill. She was not a welcome transfer student.

Counts, only 15 at the time, encountered a mob on the sidewalk. White boys and girls, encouraged by their parents, jeered and spat on her. She endured the harassment stoically and marched proudly into a classroom, where other students hissed, mocked and threw garbage at her and where the teachers ignored her.
Dorothy Counts withstood this brutal racist treatment for a week before her parents, fearful for her safety, pulled her out of Charlotte schools and sent her to live with a relative to attend school in Pennsylvania. Like most of these integration tales, her story ends better than it began. Still I’m left to wonder: this brave teenager endured this barbarity for what?Almost 60 years later, segregation remains widespread in public schools and there is no political will to do a damn thing about it. A  landmark piece on public schools in Alabama exposed segregation that mirrors schools in the 1950s. But that’s the Deep South, we say. Until you discover the nation’s largest city – a diverse urban Northeast metropolis – has the most segregated schools in the country.The isolation of Black students continues unabated. White families trying to outrun integration — affectionately known as “white flight” – continues unabated. And the hyperventilating about segregated schools doesn’t seem to last any longer than the news headlines and PBS specials. There’s not an education policymaker or education reformer that puts school integration on the top of any education policy agenda.

As Dana Goldstein outlines in The Teacher Wars: “Since 1980 the federal government has done almost nothing to encourage local school districts to create racially and socioeconomically mixed schools, even as billions of dollars are sent to states and districts that agree to tie teacher pay and evaluation to student test scores and to open new charter schools, most of which are as racially and socioeconomically homogenous as the schools the civil rights crusaders fought to reform.”

In an interesting twist, Dorothy Counts hometown of Charlotte subsequently became a model case for desegregation. By the mid-1970s Charlotte was being hailed for its successful busing plan and the “impact of integration was visible almost immediately…When whites arrived, the facilities were upgraded. A gravel parking lot was paved, and the football stadium and the gymnasium were renovated.”

The emphasis on the former part of “separate but equal” was a tactical decision necessary at the time because “the only way to secure a fair distribution of resources was to literally sit the black children in the same classrooms as the white ones.” But now we have experience as our teacher.

Research shows that racially and socioeconomically diverse schools benefit Black students (“more likely to succeed, in areas like graduating…and attending college”) and white students (“more likely to understand issues of social injustice and exhibit lower levels of racial prejudice”). Public opinion surveys support “integrated schools”. And no one is willing to expend political or other capital to accomplish diverse, integrated schools, rendering it meaningless and worthless.

So can this be the year we make integration a policy priority or just give up the ghost. Put our singular focus on equitable school resources and improved conditions in Black schools and abandon the idyllic scene of Black and white children seated side-by-side.

Racially segregated schools remain the norm because school integration is the New Year’s resolution to lose 10 pounds: we want to do it, we know we should do it, but we’re not willing to do what’s necessary to actually accomplish the goal. No pain, no gain.