The enslavement, segregation and brutality of Black communities has been the bloody heirloom to White America for centuries. And the prison-industrial complex has been a vital component of such violence.
Last week, well-known rapper Meek Mill was released from prison after serving part of a controversial sentencing. He had been sentenced to two to four years in prison for a parole violation from a legally questionable 10-year-old case. Meek Mill’s case highlights that even at the height of celebrity, if you’re Black it can feel almost impossible to escape the criminalization that Black men and women across this country face everyday.
As a teacher who teaches primarily students of color, I cannot close my eyes to reality. The fact that African Americans and Hispanics made up approximately 32 percent of the US population in 2015, yet comprised 56 percent of all incarcerated people, has to matter. And it’s something we can’t ignore in our classrooms.
For so many Whites, including myself, we are conditioned to not see things for what they are: the intentional violence against Black communities within every level of society. Often, we attribute problems within Black communities as if they were of their own making. And it’s not just Trump supporters who are guilty of this. White liberals, including teachers, can be just as complicit in this violence.
As teachers, we use coded language, dog whistles and other forms of more socially “acceptable” racism. We disparage students and parents in private. We show empathy for White victims of the opioid crisis while we express contempt for Black communities who have been ravaged by the war on drugs. If only, we say, they could pull themselves up by their bootstraps. If only.
How Vocal Should Teachers Be on Issues of Justice?
The importance of teachers confronting their own biases cannot be overstated. Too often many of us have been silent in the face of ignorance and hatred, myself included.
And again, we return to this essential question which plagues us: Just how vocal should teachers be on issues of justice?
It is clear that instructors should seek to transform our students into critical thinkers, not simply puppets that mirror out views. It is essential that we present multiple perspectives, arguments and counterarguments, and communicate to our students the paramount nature of empathizing with those who do not share our opinions. This is essential in such dangerous times.
Yet it is also important to not be neutral on issues of systemic racism, because White supremacy is not a “perspective.” It is not a “philosophy.” It should not be normalized. The bigots (whether they be conservative or liberal) will seek to to justify their hatred, and we cannot simply accept their racism as a rational philosophy.
To be lucid, I am not advocating that we seek to mold our students’ minds into a certain philosophy. Nor am I suggesting that we define what critical thinking is. But when these issues arise, it is important to not normalize White supremacy. It is essential to call it out by name. It is critical to discuss it, and not be complicit in the brutalization of communities of color.
What many White teachers may not realize is that the story of Meek Mill is not singular, and is symptomatic of broader issues of systematic racism. When my students read about him, they may make connections with some of their own relatives who are in similar situations, through no fault of their own. It is critical for White teachers to realize this difference and the role our own privilege plays in examining these issues. This is the “bloody heirloom” that we cannot ignore—only then can we truly help our students increase their critical-thinking skills and abilities.
It is our responsibility to prepare a new generation of scholars who can fix the problems within the criminal justice that we have not. The fate of all of the “Meek Mills” of America depend on it.