The Real History of Teachers Being Complicit in the Miseducation of Black and White Children

May 21, 2021 12:00:00 AM

by Sharif El-Mekki

As we celebrate and honor what would have been Malcolm X’s 96th birthday this week, I can’t help but think of his legacy in the context of today’s whitelash against speaking and teaching truth to the youth around the country.

I think of how many educators say they want to teach their students to think, when they really want to tell them what to think:  primarily, to have positive notions of and experiences with American exceptionalism and white supremacy. These politicians, parents and educators may say they want an ‘educated citizenry,’ but they really want compliance and commitment to the racist ideology of American exceptionalism.

Right now, lawmakers in at least 15 states are attempting to pass legislation that would require teachers to lie to students about the role of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and oppression throughout U.S. history.

There’s a quote from former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activist Charlie Cobb Jr. that is ringing loudly for me in this very moment,

Education should enable children to possess their own lives instead of living at the mercy of others.

[pullquote]If this legislation were to pass, our children would be living at the mercy of politicians seeking to put a ban on truth.[/pullquote] 

For as long as laws have been made in this country, racism has helped hone them to promote white superiority. And, whenever opportunities arise  to make progress towards racial justice, white people have organized around banning said progress. 

In Dr. Jarvis Giles’s brilliantly researched book, Fugitive Pedagogy, he shares historical contexts of how teachers were often policed to snuff out any attempt to elevate Black struggle against the systems—including and especially—against educational systems. Black teachers often had two curricula: one for show, the other for what Black kids needed to know. He described teachers with the whitewashed lies in their hands and Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s work on their laps. 

We haven’t gone far from that time.


We know that America’s educational system has no roots in centering Black, brown, and Indigenous students’ well-being. We know that the knife embedded in the backs of our students of color will not be extracted through American goodwill.

It is our duty, as educators, to fight for our freedom. We must ensure we are channeling Malcolm’s words. [pullquote]Instead of allowing our students to be brainwashed through the educational systems, we must ensure they are presented with primary documents so that our students can see, hear, think and speak for themselves.[/pullquote] Documents like these.

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Above is a document issued from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) commenting on a bill that was pending in the Mississippi State Legislature, which attempted to keep Freedom Schools from functioning in all areas of the state. [pullquote position="right"]When you need to know who your oppressors are, look no further than how they want you to be educated or miseducated.[/pullquote] 

If we look at the life of Malcolm, we know he worked to amplify and connect the Black struggle for liberation in the United States to the international quests for liberation of dark-skinned peoples. Suppression of truth in schools is a global issue. 

In 2015, all members of the United Nations, including the U.S., adopted a set of sustainable development goals and targets. Among them was this target for education:

By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.

Perhaps we should bring America’s educational systems, including contemporary attempts to load curriculum with white supremacist notions, to the United Nations for review. While the UN is generally impotent in holding America and other so-called superpowers accountable, we know they have clear guidelines that, at least on paper, condemn the mis-education that local, state, and federal governments provide Black children. 

Perhaps we should at least raise the issue on an international stage. At the very least, this could once again upend any false notion that America has anything of value to export when it comes to education and democracy. 

By rallying against the use of critical race theory and culturally relevant curriculum, white people are refusing to support the next generation in dealing with America’s racist present and past in a way that can eventually lead to truth and reconciliation—the very thing that America remains hellbent to avoid.

An educational system grounded in white supremacist ideology inherently undermines what W.E.B Dubois said was the purpose of education: to uplift people. [pullquote]White supremacy doesn’t uplift anyone—including white students.[/pullquote] It traps them in a violent mental framework that belies American prosperity and the Constitution it claims to worship.

When I would meet up with Malcolm’s grandson, Malcolm Lateef, before he was murdered in Mexico, we would often speak of his grandfather’s legacy, his desire to ensure Black children received the education they deserved. An education like the one I received at Nidhamu Sasa, an elementary freedom school.

I recall a song we used to sing as a part of our Freedom School Now compendium. We sang these words, to the tune of "Cisco Kid" by the group WAR: 

Malcolm X was a friend of mine
He taught Blackness and Nation Time
He taught Black People what they ought to know
Black people's pride really began to show
The oppressor had him shot down in New York
But Malcolm's teachings live on more and more
Malcolm X was a friend of mine

To have that kind of education, Malcolm knew Black children must have the tools and shields necessary to attain a positive racial identity and craft a future built on a powerful Black legacy. 


In response to the recent critiques around CRT and proposed legiislation, educators across the United States are signing a pledge to teach the truth. The pledge states:  

We the undersigned educators will not be bullied. We will continue our commitment to develop critical thinking that supports students to better understand problems in our society, and to develop collective solutions to those problems. We are for truth-telling and uplifting the power of organizing and solidarity that move us toward a more just society.

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Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the Founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development. The Center exists to ensure there will be equity in the recruiting, training, hiring, and retention of quality educators that reflect the cultural backgrounds and share common socio-political interests of the students they serve. The Center is developing a nationally relevant model to measurably increase teacher diversity and support Black educators through four pillars: Professional learning, Pipeline, Policies and Pedagogy. So far, the Center has developed ongoing and direct professional learning and coaching opportunities for Black teachers and other educators serving students of color. The Center also carries forth the freedom or liberation school legacy by hosting a Freedom School that incorporates research-based curricula and exposes high school and college students to the teaching profession to help fuel a pipeline of Black educators. Prior to founding the Center, El-Mekki served as a nationally recognized principal and U.S. Department of Education Principal Ambassador Fellow. El-Mekki’s school, Mastery Charter Shoemaker, was recognized by President Obama and Oprah Winfrey, and was awarded the prestigious EPIC award for three consecutive years as being amongst the top three schools in the country for accelerating students’ achievement levels. The Shoemaker Campus was also recognized as one of the top ten middle school and top ten high schools in the state of Pennsylvania for accelerating the achievement levels of African-American students. Over the years, El-Mekki has served as a part of the U.S. delegation to multiple international conferences on education. He is also the founder of the Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, an organization dedicated to recruiting, retaining, and developing Black male teachers. El-Mekki blogs on Philly's 7th Ward, is a member of the 8 Black Hands podcast, and serves on several boards and committees focused on educational and racial justice.

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