If We Want to Address This Country’s Race Problem We Need to Start in the Classroom

Jul 12, 2016 12:00:00 AM


I would love to say my heart is heavy as I try to process the senseless executions of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Yet, saying my heart is heavy would be a lie. My heart is NUMB. I am NUMB. I am numb because I cannot fathom how much more it will take for some real change to occur. I am not condoning violence. But I do wonder how many men and women of color have to lose their lives at routine traffic stops or outside storefronts before something tangible and systemic is done to ensure the right to live. One cannot pinpoint just one situation that brings us to where we are today. There are a myriad of situations and conditions which have made some members of our society view other persons as animalistic or less than. We can go back centuries and read the works of one of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson. Yes, him again. In Notes on the State of Virginia , Jefferson hinted that African-Americans’ skin color may be derived from bile and they produced a very strong and disagreeable odor. He also wrote of how African-Americans were inferior when it came to reasoning, imagination, and the composition of complicated melodies. Trust me, there are plenty of other noble statesman who can be called out for their racist thoughts, but Jefferson’s views were used as the bedrock for a racist nation in which we currently reside.

Let's Talk Race

As a long-time principal in both urban and suburban school districts, issues of race and equity have been at the center of my life. These days, as I transition from principal to teacher at a predominantly white Catholic university, discussions of race occupy a central place in my classroom. Many of my students will teach in areas with a sizeable population of African-Americans, including Baltimore City. A number of them have shared with me that this will be the first time they will interact with people of color on a consistent basis. Each class period usually involves a discussion on how race impacts teaching and learning. My students are preparing for future teaching careers in which race will be front and center, even as they try to make sense of a world in which violence against people of color is a daily occurrence. These are the sorts of questions and comments they have for me. What about Black-on-Black crime? Isn’t that more harmful to the Black community? That’s a fairly easy one. Most people tend to commit crimes where they live or in communities they frequent. White-on-White is just as much a problem as Black-on-Black crime. The media outlets simply choose to spin the narrative that Black-on-Black crime is the pervasive problem. If the people being arrested would just cooperate and respect authority, we wouldn’t have this problem. So let me get this straight, if I don’t talk a certain way (White dominant culture), dress a certain way (White dominant culture) or dare to question why I’m being detained (going against White dominant culture), am I not guaranteed a right to life? This is what we call in academia Anglo-normativity, and it refers to the holding up of White culture as the norm. In other words, I have to  not be who I am, in order to make you, Mr. Police Officer, feel comfortable in interacting with me. But ah, there are two solid examples to dispel this warped ideology.
  1. What about Henry Louis Gates, Jr. a noted Harvard professor who was arrested for entering his home steps away from the Harvard campus? While Dr. Gates thankfully did not lose his life, he was seen by the police involved in this arrest as "other."
  2. And then we have Dr. Ersula Ore, a professor at Arizona State University, who was arrested for jaywalking. Jaywalking?!
So if I’m to look at the data in front of me, it tells me in order to guarantee your life when dealing with the police as a Black person in this country you have to hold a doctorate degree?! We have a Black president. Doesn’t that mean things are better in regards to racism? President Obama took to Facebook to give a response to the deaths of Sterling and Castile. In the post, he spoke of how, "All Americans should be deeply troubled by the fatal shootings" and "all people in this great nation are equal before the law." But how do we take his words without a grain of salt when he appoints people such as Loretta Lynch, who was presented to the African-American community as someone who would be a judicial advocate for Blacks, yet hasn’t been an advocate for people of color. My students look to me to be hopeful, to reassure them that race relations aren’t a major concern in this country. I get the sense that many of my students want me to acknowledge we have some obstacles to overcome in regards to racism, but in the end that everything is going to work out for everyone. My students look to me to be hopeful, to reassure them that race relations aren’t a major concern in this country. But the reality for me is that, we, as a nation, have to address some inherent issues we have regarding race relations. There is no getting around that. I don’t want to follow another Twitter hashtag. I don’t want to buy another t-shirt to add to my vast collection. I don’t want to march on the courthouse steps of some municipality that doesn’t really give a damn about what’s happening to Black people in this country. I do want to work with others interested in seeing significant change to ensure the lives of Black folks. Because I don't want to once again explain to my son why he shouldn’t be afraid of the police but should know what to do when they approach him. I have said it before and I will say it again: Until members of the Black community unite in a strategic, meaningful, sustainable way, we will continue to see atrocities perpetrated against our own.
An original version of this post appeared on Edushyster as I am Numb.

Adell Cothorne

Adell Cothorne is a visiting affiliate professor with Loyola University of Maryland. Her research focuses on teacher expectations, African American male students and equitable practices. She has been an educator for over 20 years and has advocated for students in both urban and suburban school systems.

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