This is the 3rd segment of our series of articles on education, racism and the performance gap.
It is incredibly difficult for a white person to understand what it is like to be black. Sadly, most white people are perfectly content to know as little as possible about such things. For others like my white daughter and son-in-law, who are parents of a black son, it is imperative that we understand as much as we possibly can.
My wife and I have three grandchildren. The eldest is a little girl who was adopted by that same daughter and son-in-law. She is of Mexican descent with beautiful, thick black hair, brown eyes, golden brown skin, and a smile that lights up the world. The second is a little boy whose skin is a beautiful, rich brown with eyes to match, who has his sister’s smile, and who came out of his birth mother’s womb with a natural Afro. Our youngest grandchild is the biological child of my youngest daughter and her husband. She is the palest of whites, bordering on pink, and her hair is as red as her father’s beard. She is also beautiful with a smile that is second to none.
These children represent our family’s beautiful rainbow and, like all grandparents, we love them so much that it hurts.
When our daughter announced that they were adopting a black infant we knew he would face challenges but we did not yet grasp the whole of it. From the events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere we have become painfully aware of the dangers our sweet and beautiful little boy will face; not because of anything he has done but only because of the way the color of his skin will affect the attitudes of a huge population of Americans.
We shuddered after reading such powerful articles as “I Never Knew How White I Was Until I Had a Black Child,” which you can find on Rosebelle’s Blog; and more recently, “7 Ways Racism Affects the Lives of Black Children” by Terrell Jermaine Starr on the website Alternet.
I have spent my entire lifetime striving to understand why our world is so full of hatred over issues as insignificant as the color of one’s skin. I still struggle to understand why differences in eye or hair color are perceived as different shades of beauty while differences in skin color can produce such hatred and mistrust.
I was blessed to be born to parents who taught that we are all children of Creation and that we were blessed to live in a country in which we are all considered equal under the Constitution.
I was equally fortunate to live in a neighborhood and attend an elementary school where I learned to be friends and playmates of my black classmates before I ever learned of the existence of bigotry and racism.
When I first witnessed the hatred that my white friends had for my black friends, I was devastated. Innocence was forever lost but I never lost my perception of diversity as something to be cherished as beautiful.
Later, at the age of 20, I was privileged to spend a summer working in a churchyard in Philadelphia, providing a place for kids to gather and play, safe from the reaches of the gangs whose territories sandwiched our little oasis. All were African-American. While I was responsible for the 30 to 40 different boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 16 who chose to play in our churchyard and game room, I played with them far more than I supervised.
For the first nine years after college and the military, I worked as a juvenile probation officer where I supervised a multi-racial group of boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 17. Later, I was one of the founders of a local Boys and Girls Club where, once again, I was privileged to be around and play with a diverse group of children.
What I learned during these significant chunks of my life was that whether black, white, or shades of brown; rich or poor; male or female they are all just kids.
They all laugh when they play or act silly; cry and bleed red when they get hurt; get mad when they lose; celebrate when they win; get embarrassed when they are made fun of; yawn when they get sleepy; respond to love and affection with love and affection; and, suffer egregiously when abused by their parents or when bullied.
They all have the ability to learn; they all are curious about the world around them; and, they all get discouraged and feel humiliated when they fail. They all suffer great loss of self-esteem when they give up on themselves after repeated failure and no longer believe in their ability to compete. That we give up on them only adds to the tragedy.
They all deserve our respect not only as individual human beings but also as members of their unique cultural traditions all of which add beauty to the world. The only difference, once they arrive at school, is their level of preparation and motivation.
They all deserve the absolute best we have to offer and the very fact that so many of them fail provides irrefutable evidence that they are not getting our best and that what we are doing does not work for everyone.
Whether we are teachers, principals, policy-makers, or deans and professors of schools of education we must be willing to pull our heads from the sand and stop defending the indefensible. The fact that so many children are failing, particularly minorities and the poor, is not a predisposition of birth or a fact of nature. Such incidence of failure is nothing more than an outcome of a flawed system of human design. The performance gap between white children and their black and other minority classmates is an outcome our traditional educational process is structured to produce.
This flawed system is not the fault of teachers and other professional educators. Rather, the culpability of educators is the result of the fact that they are the people in the best position to identify and remediate this flawed educational process but they hold back as if they are afraid to act. It is critical that we understand that this lack of action is not because they are bad people or incompetent professionals rather it is because they have succumbed to the belief that they are powerless.
Teachers must be challenged to accept that powerlessness and hopelessness are functions of choice. They are equally free to choose to be both hopeful and powerful.
The over-riding truth, as we move deeper into this exponentially complex 21st Century, is that we need each and every one of these kids just as desperately as they need us.
Our ability to compete in the world marketplace will require the absolute best of every single American and if we do not pull together as one beautifully diverse nation of people—the proverbial melting pot—the results will be tragic for all of us, black, white or any of the colors of the rainbow. We will no longer live in a world where being an American is something of which we can be proud. Neither will it be a world where our children and grandchildren can feel safe and hopeful in rearing their own children.
The final segment of this series will be devoted to showing professional educators one way in which we can irrevocably alter the reality of public education in America.