Last weekend, in New Orleans, I had the pleasure of meeting with black educators and activists from across the country at what I called a “black activist” boot camp. I was excited to be among leaders of color to discuss the challenges of being black in America as well as the solutions needed to ensure that parents and children of color have equitable access to high-quality teachers and administrators and culturally responsive education regardless of school model, zip code or family income. While I enjoyed the empowering experiences associated with being in the presence of such a positive group of people, I had moments of sadness, anxiety and anger as I listened to New Orleans parents and community leaders talk about the traumas poor and black residents still face as a direct result of Katrina. My heart and mind was also trying to wrap itself around the death of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who was pulled over for a routine traffic stop in Texas. She, like so many other unarmed black people over the years, died at the hands of those we are conditioned to blindly trust: law enforcement. When I watched the video of Sandra Bland questioning this white police officer as to why she was stopped and subsequently pulled out of her car, assaulted and arrested, my mind quickly raced back to 2008, when a white Connecticut Department of Children and Families social worker approached me at my son’s school. She asked me if I had told him this: If he did not behave in class then he
could get in trouble and be put in juvenile centers for kids who mostly looked like him. I looked at the social worker as if she was posing a trick question. I replied that I had indeed. She then stated, “Our agency considers that a threat and emotional neglect.” After I got over the initial shock, I asked how it was a threat to teach my son about the realities of being black in America. I suggested that the social worker research her own data because we know many of our current public school systems don’t just deny kids of color an equitable education, they ensure they are not integrated in classrooms through excessive school discipline. After this incident occurred, I begged for help from black leaders working in the system to help address this discrimination—to no avail at first. Eventually, I found a black civil rights lawyer who took my case and sued the State of Connecticut for racial discrimination because of the case worker’s threat. After
seven long years, the judge opted not to dismiss the case, which will allow my case to move forward to trial or settlement. Sadly, I believe I prevailed because Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and many others lost their lives, which I believe helped the judge in my case see the fear I had as a black mother. I am hoping that my case settlement will push for mandatory cultural training for state case workers and more proactive interactions with communities of color.
Why Do I Say All This?
Sandra Bland knew her rights, which included a right to due process and a right to live. Sandra Bland asked questions of an unjust law enforcement system and for that she is now dead. I can imagine her feeling helpless and sometimes alone as she fought to bring awareness to a system that targets us because we are born black. Black women like her who stand up for what they know to be right are portrayed as angry and are victimized because of that stereotype. But I also know a quality education can combat ignorance and bring about some peace in an unjust society. But I am also a realist and know that without justice for all, there can be no peace, so to be a black parent is to be constantly aware and ready to fight for equitable access to opportunity for all kids—especially for poor children and children of color.
Gwen Samuel is the founder and president of the Connecticut Parents Union.