Racism, The Achievement Gap, and Public Education, Part 2

This is the second of our series of articles that are offered to address the issues that face children of color and also white children who live in poverty in this the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world.

We begin with the simple idea that it is time to draw a line in the sand and say that we will no longer tolerate a world in which some Americans are denied access to the American dream. This demands that
we shift our focus to those things over which we have control and not squander our precious time and energy fretting about things that are outside the power of individual human beings to change.

It is like being stuck in the mud. Do we complain about our plight or start digging ourselves out.

We cannot, for example, go back and change several hundred years of history in which black men and women were brought to this continent in chains, nor the first 100 years following the Emancipation Proclamation during which black Americans were forced to live as second-class citizens, nor the 50 years since Civil Rights laws were passed; legislation that raised the expectations of African-American and other minorities but without altering the reality in which so many live in poverty, powerlessness, and hopelessness.

We cannot go back and change the reality that has greeted the millions of Latinos who have migrated to this country in recent years, whether legally or not.

We cannot legislate changes in the hearts of so many white Americans that are laced with bigotry and prejudice, whether blatant or subtle.

Neither can we legislate a change in the hearts and minds of those police officers who are predisposed to act with bias and excessive force. The best we can do demand that our communities hold abusers accountable and tighten our entrance requirements.

We cannot erase, through legislation action or executive orders, the economic disadvantages that have led generations of Americans to rear their children and live in poverty. Recall that President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty a half century ago and ask yourself if anything has changed. Most of us would say things have gotten steadily worse.

We have not been successful in our attempts to legislate an end to the institutional racism that has plagued and continues to plague black men, women, and children and the families of other minorities; institutional racism that is invisible to the overwhelming majority of white Americans. Civil rights laws have been on the books for a half century and have been routinely enforced and upheld by our nation’s courts of law, yet still these realities persist.

We cannot undo the damage that has been done to minds and egos of generations of children who have been victims of an educational process that has taught them how to fail nor can we undo a long history of academic failure that has led generations of young parents to relinquish their belief that an education is a ticket to the American dream and provides a way for their children to escape the clutches of poverty.

As much as we might wish to do all of the above they are not within our power and no amount of complaining about the injustice of these realities will alter that fact. The more we dwell on things we cannot change the more immersed we are in our paradigms of powerlessness and hopelessness.

We are not powerless, however, and we need not be hopeless. We have it within our power to draw a line of demarcation in the sand and say “no more!” All it requires is that we begin doing things differently from two strategic fronts, simultaneously.

We must alter, once and for all, the balance of power that drives legislation and policy making in the American political landscape. How we do this will be the topic of the next series of articles we will be writing but it begins with the reality that the conservative political power structure in the U.S. that, today, is driven by conservative “tea party” ideology, does not represent anywhere close to a majority of the American people. The problem, of course is that the majority of Americans have stopped participating in their own governance because they have given up hope that anything they do will make a difference.

In a recent post, Phyllis Bush, a great friend to public education, talked about choosing collaboration over competition. If the following groups of Americans would come together to form a political coalition they would have more than enough political clout to turn both our federal and state legislative branches upside down and also our federal and state executive branches.

Who would make up this coalition? The answer is all of the people whose political needs and interests are being ignored by those currently in power. They include:

• All African-American; Hispanic-American; and other ethnic, racial, and religious minorities; and also those who face discrimination due to sexual orientation;

• All professional educators working in public schools throughout America;

• All parents who depend on public schools for the education of their children; and,

• All of the men and women in America who work for a living and who are union members or who would belong to a union had that right not been taken from them.

We need to leave the tradition of Republican and Democrat behind. The reality, today, is that it is the Tea Party and their conservative supporters versus the people. Maybe we need to call it the “People’s Party,” making it clear, however, that this is not a socialist or communist agenda.

The other strategic front is American public education. We have the power to begin changing, from the inside out, the forces that keep poor and minority children from getting the education they need to break out of poverty. We can do this, however, only if we are willing to open our hearts and minds and re-examine our fundamental assumptions about the way we structure the educational process at work in American schools; about the way we teach children.

All that is required of us is that we be willing to step back and think systemically about the way the process is structured and how it produces outcomes that are so devastating to precious young lives.

If we do this honestly, and without feeling the need to excuse ourselves from blame or responsibility, it is so very easy to do. We should not waste one nanosecond worrying about blame or fault. What we can do—what we must do—is accept responsibility for doing things differently, beginning this very moment.

There is a simple but powerful axiom that we must keep at the forefront of our minds:

“It is not until we accept responsibility for the problems in our lives that we begin to acquire the power to solve them.”

Clearly the key is public education. If we are able to provide all children, not just affluent white children, the knowledge and skills they need in order to carve out full and productive lives for themselves then we can begin narrowing the performance gap until it disappears forever. We can begin by identifying outcomes that are acceptable to us and that will give all children an opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential. Then, it is simply a matter of structuring the process in such a way that it can and will produce those outcomes. We will show the reader exactly how this can be done in our last segment. Before we do so, however, there is one last point of discussion we must consider in the upcoming third post in this series.

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