Yesterday’s lack of indictment for Eric Garner’s homicide, laid bare the unquestionable injustices faced by African Americans in this nation.
As education advocates that say we serve students of color, we cannot ignore Eric’s death, Mike’s death and the deaths of countless others any longer. They are human beings, not hashtags.
The overused phrase “education is the civil rights issue of our time” sounded hollow after the Ferguson protests swept the nation. Too many individuals and organizations that push education reform as a civil rights issue remain eerily silent on Ferguson—on protests led largely by young people of color.
These groups that say they want to address educational inequities and be advocates of students of color—but where are they on the injustices in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases? It’s time to speak up.
Young people have been ready to have this conversation for a very long time. Almost a decade ago in my sixth grade English classroom, I anticipated my students’ needs by revising suggested reading lists to include novels with characters that looked like my students and books that did not shy away from race. But my students wanted to dig deeper and continued to express their frustrations about racial injustice.
This prompted me to start an after-school club to facilitate conversations that did not fit into a 75-minute block of classroom time. It was important for my students—who were predominantly African American—to know that they were heard. So we spoke on race. We spoke on injustice.
Unfortunately, injustices live on in New York City, Cleveland, Ferguson and across the nation.
Academic performance at Normandy High School, where Michael Brown graduated in 2014, reflects educational injustices. In English, only 31% of African American of students at Normandy High School are advanced or proficient. In math, nearly 27% of their African American students are advanced or proficient. And 62% of Normandy’s African American students graduate high school.
Advocates and leaders do not sit on the sidelines waiting for change. If education reform organizations exist to tackle difficult issues head on then they shouldn’t run from Ferguson. This should be an opportunity to address social injustices that underlie educational inequities. For those organizations that have been quiet on these injustices until now, it is time to be bold and brave once more.
This is the moment where you can be true to your mission.
Educational inequity is but one form of racial injustice in this nation. If an organization can passionately advocate on a broad array of education issues, why shouldn’t it be capable of confronting the structural racism in Ferguson and the nation as a whole? And if organizations cannot lead conversations that address the broader issues Ferguson protesters are courageously putting before our eyes, it may be time to call them out for being advocates of students and communities on paper, on slick websites, but not in reality.
I believe many of these reform organizations are silent because they lack racial diversity among their staff. While saying they want to serve students of color they hire too few people of color. That is deeply troubling because these organizations wield immense influence in our communities. At a minimum, these education organizations should reflect the communities they serve.
Young people of color are peacefully protesting in cities across America. They are reacting to the deep and interconnected injustices that African Americans and other people of color face in this country. For too many of the young people we educate, their dreams and aspirations are shattered before they have an opportunity to pursue them. As advocates, our work to address inequities in the educational system cannot be blind to the other conditions and injustices our students face.
So, let’s be clear: Civil Rights have always been the civil rights issue of our time. Providing students an excellent education is one path to achieve a more perfect union.
However, fighting to “fix” public schools must be done with a real understanding of how racial injustice and poverty affect the lives of students and families beyond the classroom.
As we see young people in the streets creating a new civil rights movement, it’s time for education reformers to either stand with them and all of the Fergusons in America, or sit down and let real advocates lead the way.