A Brief History Lesson
In November 2008, America elected the first person of color to the highest office in the land. Many media and political pundits were claiming that America had reached the point of becoming a post-racial society. Since white folks voted in such large numbers for a black man, the country had supposedly gotten beyond race. At last. (I guess these same pundits forgot all those people of color who had been voting in elections since 1964 for all those white men running for president. I guess it’s only “post-racial” when white folks vote for a presidential candidate who’s not their color.)
At that same time, the global economy went into a freefall, and we are still reeling from the effects of that economic meltdown now. Fast forward to 2012, where we had George Zimmerman, a real-life human troll and neighborhood watch warrior, got acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin. Giving rise to the primary rallying cry of the 21st-century new civil rights movement, #BlackLivesMatter. Since Zimmerman, worsening race relations has made #BlackLivesMatter even more necessary. We’ve had police shootings all across the country from Baltimore to San Francisco back to Chicago. In the summer of 2016, fifteen plus police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge lost their lives due to rogue shooters who felt violence was the only answer against constant police brutality inflicted upon black folks daily.
This brings us to the latest series of race riots, in Milwaukee. You have seen this same story repeated in the news cycles ad nauseam. The story goes down like this: the cops shoot a black person, the cops state that the suspect had a weapon, and they (the cops) were defending themselves. The community then asks for the body cam video to prove the cops’ claims. The community demands answers and justice for another senseless death. Then the cops investigate themselves and find themselves innocent of any wrongdoing. This screwed-up dance has been happening long before the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant. Unfortunately, this cycle of fuckery repeats every single time, to the constant dismay of many black people. Black people of all ages and class backgrounds all know that they are one dreadful run-in with the law away from becoming the next hashtag on Black Twitter. Meanwhile, on each occasion, many white people launch into claims about how the black person in question would still be alive if he or she had just listened to the cops’ orders. The situation in Milwaukee followed this same cycle.
Milwaukee has been rated as one of America’s most segregated cities. (My hometown, Chicago, is the most segregated of the major cities in the United States.) In many American cities, poor/working-class black people and middle/upper-class white people live in two entirely different worlds. Like the ladies of HBO’s hit shows, Girls and Sex in the City, urban white folks seem to live sheltered white lives. (Watching Girls, you would think black people don’t live in New York City). Likewise, Milwaukee is a genuinely modern-day Tale of Two Cities. In Milwaukee, the unemployment rate for black males (ages 25-54) in Milwaukee is 52.7%. Half of the black men in their 30s in Milwaukee have been in state prison. As of the 2014 census, it was the 5th poorest city in the country. Poverty, high employment, the abysmal education system, social isolation, brutal policing, lack of second chances for ex-offenders, and extreme segregation are the factors that created the powder keg which erupted in Milwaukee a couple of weeks ago.
The reality of Milwaukee is the reality in many cities across the country. Poor black people are among the most policed and segregated people in the country, besides Native American people living in utter poverty on many of our nation’s reservations. In cities Chicago, Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Baltimore, there is underlying hopelessness that runs rampant in many poor and working-class black urban communities. Besides personal ambitions (i.e., being a rapper, or athlete, or singer), many young people living in those communities see little hope in breaking the cycle. They are hated, unloved, and their bodies are used to fill the local jails and privates prisons. The waste of potential and talent lost in the system is tragic.
In America, the prevailing narrative is that one is poor because they didn’t make the right choices. But this ignores all the outside forces that make climbing out of poverty like clearing a massive hurdle. Poor and working-class black people’s only voice in these islands of despair surrounded by oceans of opulence are riots. Riots are their language. When they have reached their boiling point, violent outbursts manifest, and cities burn. Dr. King said it best: “And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
The Homework Assignments
Lesson 1: Separate and Still Unequal
The despair, violence, and hopelessness in many poor and working-class communities in major cities are mirrored only by poverty in rural areas of the country. (But people in rural areas are not subjected to constant police harassment or targeted as criminals most times). In cities with sizable black populations, you can clearly see that those who are at the bottom of the economic ladder are primarily black people. Hopelessness gets entrenched at an early age, and I witnessed it firsthand growing up on Chicago’s Southside and Westside. Many of our public and charters schools are filled with teachers who don’t reflect the cultural background of the students they serve and teach. This is not to say that white people can’t be wonderful teachers to people of color, but we must be honest that even the most well-meaning white person still has their own prejudices when it comes to black people. Since we live a system of white domination, for now, stereotypes and prejudices about different social groups are ingrained into our collective psyche.
Over half of the children five and under entering primary education are non-white. About 15% of educators are people of color, and depending on the particular city, that number can drop dramatically. But I don’t need to quote stats. I worked in education and non-profits in Chicago. I attended social work school at one of Chicago’s most respected and mostly white institutions of higher learning. I even spoke about this problem in great detail, one of my earlier posts about the “White Savior Complex.” Working in Chicago Public Schools, I saw that depending on your zip code, your educational experience as a child was vastly different. There were predominately white schools with vast resources and unlimited opportunities, and mostly over-crowded black and brown schools barely hanging on by a thread to provide an education to their students.
Lesson 2: School-to-Prison-Pipeline
Students of color at a young age observe that their teachers and principals don’t look like them or reflect their culture. This colors how these same students are disciplined. Since the 1990s, states and cities have shifted to using law enforcement in handling many disciplinary matters in our nation’s elementary and high schools. Over the years, the federal government has allotted 867 million dollars to law enforcement and security guards in schools.
In poor and working-class neighborhoods, students often deal with many social problems in their homes and communities. But instead of adding more school counselors, social workers, or nurses, students are provided a school resource officers (a.k.a police officers). I found it appalling when I worked at a local high school in Chicago that a police officer and a security guard were on hand at all times. But when a young man injured himself playing a pick-up game of basketball, I quickly found out that same school had a nurse that only worked three days a week. This was the reality for many public schools throughout the country.
The police officers and security guards spend every passing period yelling at the students to get to class or be placed in-school suspension. I saw it happen in countless schools, and I don’t fault these security guards and officers. Many of these men and women were just doing their job and actually gave a damn about the students. On the other hand, there are bad ones, as we saw in South Carolina last year when a school resource office manhandled a troubled black girl in a local high school there. The media basically approved the 300-pound officer slamming down a 90-pound teenage girl. I guess it’s cool for grown-ass men to throw around little girls…as long as they’re black.
Instead of hiring more social workers, nurses, or therapists in schools with the most need, cops and security replace these vital support services. In essence, school is preparing our children for the prison environment. Many behavioral problems in school with young people and children can be traced to issues at home or in blighted neighborhoods. But it seems that we would rather, as a society, use punitive measures to solve and handle our social ills, versus investing in constructive and holistic approaches for the benefit of all people. Countries like Finland and Singapore have solved the problems of thoroughly educating their people of all class backgrounds. But it seems that the so-called most powerful nation on earth can’t do this, despite all the money we throw at the problem. My cynical side thinks there’s money to be made off future prisoners. Good job, America!
Lesson 3: The Achievement Gap and Every Poor Child Left Behind
The United States trails far behind many countries in educational achievement. We’ve turned to educate children and youth into a business. Students are seen more as part of the bottom line. Well, every company must gauge how successful its products are, and in American schools, standardized tests are the tools used to determine the success of the product. Even at the tender age of five years old, students across the country, especially in poor communities where schools are all competing for the same limited resources, partake in high stakes testing.
Students and teachers dedicate so much time to high stakes testing that they miss out on valuable learning time in other subjects like math, reading, and science. President Bush and President Obama’s respective education policies “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” further tie school funding to standardized test scores and make schools aggressively compete for limited funds. Those with higher standardized test scores receive more funding and don’t face being closed or turned into a privately run Charter School.
“Our children are tested to an extent that is unprecedented in our history and unparalleled anywhere else in the world. While previous generations of American students have had to sit through tests, never have the tests been given so frequently, and never have they played such a prominent role in schooling.” – Alfie Kohn
I had a close friend and teacher who once told me that prepping for standardized testing took up two months of classroom instruction time. She further stated that she hated that fact, but even more heartbreaking was the fact that she had to be the bearer of bad news to her second graders.
“I have to destroy these young children’s confidence. All because of a stupid standardized test.” – a Chicago elementry school teacher
Since we’ve applied the business model to education at both the primary and secondary level, schools need a method of measuring students’ progress. Standardized tests still are the gold standard, but they’re more of a golden turd. Standardized tests are a poor measuring stick with which to gauge a child’s intelligence. They are designed to only assess how well one takes a test and follow instructions.
These high stake tests don’t do anything to negate the high school drop out rate. In fact, it seems to further make young people hate and despise their educational experience. If learning is made to be boring and rudimentary due to high-stakes tests given since first grade, then there’s no wonder why college and beyond isn’t a realistic goal for many poor black youths living in cities like Chicago, LA, or Milwaukee. (Black students are twice as likely to drop out of high school versus their white counterparts.) I’ve had numerous students tell me that staff and teachers don’t respect them or that they set low standards for them. Testing further shows to these young people, they’re just numbers, and that’s their only importance.
Black students are most likely to attend the most segregated schools where most of the students are of the same racial background. Not to mention, if all those students are of the same income level, then there’s a belief that they’re all on the same sinking ship. On top of all that, study after study has revealed that about eighty percent of staff and teachers at these schools are white. It creates a clear division of power. Students see a world where people like them are targets for law enforcement. They know that educational and professional careers are only for “white folks.”
Poor and working-class black communities are isolated not only by race but class. So many of these young black kids don’t see people that look like them in prominent positions outside of entertainment and sports on TV. The best thing about Michelle and Barack Obama is there is now a generation of black kids that only know the Obamas as the first family. It’s a step in the right direction, but there’s a lot of work to do in the future.
Black folks from disadvantaged backgrounds who do rise above these challenges and become successful professionals, like myself, are told two very different things depending on the person who’s saying it. Fellow professional black people will often state, “We have to work twice as hard as white people to get the same respect.” And some white people will say, very condescendingly, “Well, you’ve made it from that type of background, why can’t the rest of them?”
Both of those statements are bullshit of the worse kind, and, in America, they’re all types of bullshit we’re fed daily. Black people, we need to realize that white domination and systematic racism is at the very foundation of this country. The education system was never designed to fully empower or educate black children. Over 160 years ago, it was illegal for a black person to know how to read or write, let alone know how to solve an equation.
White people also need to realize that for every black person who makes it out of their miserable neighborhood, they’re 100 more who don’t make it out and continue to endure the cycle of poverty. We’re miseducated and undervalued on the first day of school because of skin color and class background. College and graduate school are far beyond the reach of low-income people without taking on a boatload of student debt. Unfortunately, many low-income people forgo college due to the high tuition cost and lack of accessible pell grants. Also, black people with degrees still have a higher rate of unemployment than their white counterparts.
White people, even the poor ones, in cities and rural regions of this country have a leg up since day one due to our racial caste system. The government helped a lot of white men after World War II with the G.I. Bill and housing grants. Black people were systematically excluded from the middle-class boom of the 1940-60s. That history is laid out beautifully by author Ta-Neshisi Coates in his breakthrough article “The Case for Reparations.” Those folks that do “make it out” had a lot of luck and good people in their life, and they still don’t have it easy. When we black people go into professions or fields to give back to our communities, we face so many obstacles.
In the educational sector, for example, black professionals have to deal with white saviors and “liberals,” who still hold the highest positions and are decision-makers in our education systems and at educational non-profits. The business model for primary education mostly applies to poor and working-class schools and communities, where business tycoons are allowed to come in and experiment with poor children’s education. Business people and school districts often use low-income schools as spaces to experiment with the schools and students. Bill Gates’ Small School Initiative comes to mind. I saw this initiative in action, at one high school of 600 students. It gave them four different administrations, and each principal got paid anywhere from 100k-150k per year. This same school had one computer lab with six barely functional desktops to be used by all the students. This experiment only created gridlock and bureaucracy because the different leadership could never agree on the best way they educate the students. I can just imagine what it looked like at other schools across the country. These environments for black educators, therapists, and social workers can become very hostile and unwelcoming.
Hell, I worked at any educational organization that lost or fired 13 black and brown men in the space of two years. That’s the world we live in for now. Hopefully, it will change for the better and not turn into a complete apartheid system. But black folks must stand up and continue to kick down the door for actual quality education for our young people.
The Final Lesson: The Souls of Black Folks
On Twitter, I was called out for promoting violence when I quoted Dr. King’s statement I mentioned in the first part of this article. I was standing in solidarity with the people of Milwaukee. I was told that black people need to be non-violent and not promote rioting. I doubt Dr. King ever advocated that black people commit violence en masse, nor did I support such a thing. Like Dr. King, I was merely stating that disenfranchised people will finally react to constant injustices, and they will respond via riots and uprisings.
We must demand justice and still proudly proclaim that #blacklivesmatter. Many white folks, even so-called “liberals,” claim that the black lives matter movement supports hate against white people and violence against cops. They castigate any white person on social media who stand in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. These same folks promote personal responsibility and blame a supposedly inherently dysfunctional black culture for its problems. Personal responsibility is important, but these white people often overlook a hundred years of Jim Crow policies, the dismantling of the social safety net, and the failed War on Drugs. They ignore how those things impact the black community. I think they’ll probably never get it or want to get it because it’s easier to blame black women having babies out of wedlock for all the problems that hinder poor and working-class black communities in cities like Milwaukee.
We black folks must do our best to build our own educational organizations and try to get into the teaching profession at all levels. Both black men and women alike need to have a hand in educating our children. Parents must rise up and demand this too. Even becoming a mentor to a young black kid or volunteering at a school can help students see other career and life paths. Black people, thanks to racism, will always have a moving target on their heads. We will never be accepted by the dominant culture. Black women are one of the most educated groups of people in the country, but if you listen to a presidential candidate, Donald Trump, black folks are all screwed thanks to so-called “black on black” crime.
We also must dismiss those so-called liberals who claim we must need to be entirely non-violent and turn the other cheek towards injustice, those “liberals” who urge to forgive our enemies who shoot us dead in the streets and defund and close our schools. Black folks need to call out these same liberals who criticize rioters in various cities and continuously claim they need to see all the evidence when it comes to these police shootings, even when the video is evidence enough. We know why these riots happen and will continue to happen as long as we are miseducated by the system. It will be up to black folks to put an end to this cycle, even if that means disengaging with white liberals and conservatives who only bring hate and ignorance to the 400-year racial discussion in this nation. We’ve done a great job so far, but we still have a long way to go to adequately educate the miseducated black folks among us in America.