I've whittled away at this post for days, which is unusual for me and usually means I'm making things worse, not better. And my first impulse in these days has been to stay quiet and listen, because a national conversation about racism doesn't really need one more white guy's voice. But 1) silence is not an option right now and 2) this all has implications for educators. But I warn you-- if I have a gift for making the complicated clear and simple, it will not be on display here.
I'm not telling you anything new to say that these are challenging times, though we have had times like these before, times when the ranker parts of our society have split open and spilled forth, times when the pain that people usually carry as a part of their daily routine suddenly erupts in roars, times when we have to confront (or in some cases, angrily defend) the stories we tell ourselves about who we are as a people.
In the moment, there is also the roiling clash between the complexity of reality and the reflexive grab for simple stories and explanations, all further complicated because it's during the noisy, difficult times that the worst of us slip out, under cover of chaos and noise, to spread more chaos and noise. Then there's the fear, and sometimes with the fear comes the stupid. There have been too many awful moments, some beautiful moments, some moments that weren't what they seemed.
What happens in the moment matters--how can it not, with so many words, so much action. But will it matter? Will there be a change, or will this moment fade. Is this rumble the kind of noise that comes when tectonic plates, long pressured, suddenly snap past each other to a new configuration, or is the noise of a rubber band, long stretched, snapping back to its original configuration?
Demonstrations and protests matter. They're a way to convey in real and effective ways just how strong and deep the feelings about an issue run. It's important that so many Americans are willing to stand up and be publicly associated with the message that Black Lives Matter. But that can't be the end of it, or all the walking and talking ultimately doesn't matter. The violence is a terrifying distraction from the main point, putting far too many people on all sides at risk; what agitators understand really well is that sparking more conflict puts both the crowd and the police at greater risk. You don't have to be that old to recognize the loop we seem poised to navigate yet again-- an injustice occurs, people rise up, noise is made, and then everyone goes back to the old normal. I'm interested in where we are, but I'm more interested in where we'll be six months from now. I see lots and lots of "We stand with Black Lives Matter," which is better than silence, but I still wonder what it will mean in six months. I mean, right now if I log on to Amazon, I see a big banner announcing that they stand with Black Lives Matter-- but what is the richest guy in the world actually doing about it?
White folks have work to do, especially white educators. And I would rather see us focus on doing the work than trying to look like we're doing the work. Education has to get its house in order. Rann Miller correctly points out that "Amy Coopers Are Everywhere," and that includes education. Horrifying examples abound. Little Miami University (in Ohio, not Florida) is going through a flap because a retired-now-part-time professor decided to shout some racist bullshit at demonstrators. This story gives you most of the pertinent data except for one item-- the professor is from the department of Teacher Education. Meanwhile, we've still got public schools commemorating Confederate figures and huge resistance to fixing that problem.
Cameron Barnett is a Pittsburgh middle school teacher who offers some concrete advice for white allies, including "the work of justice is never-ending, so stay tuned in for the long haul." Again, none of this is simple. One of the recurring theme I find among folks I know who are certain that there is no systemic inequity and that folks of all races exist on a level playing field, is the idea that at some point in the past Something Happened and that just erased all the historic effects. Maybe it was the end of the Civil War or the end of Jim Crow laws or a certain civil rights act, but they are sure that once that happened, everything became okee dokee and so all this BLM stuff is just baloney.
But US history on race (and a few other messy issues as well) is a tangled knot and there has never been and will never be a simple solution, and systems of racism and inequity have never gone away. There has never been and never will be a point at which folks can brush off their hands and say, "Well, that's all fixed" and just walk away.
That should feel familiar to folks in the education world, because education is also susceptible to magical thinking, to the belief that once we just wave the correct magic wand, everything will be okay. And we know that is bunk.
We should also recognize one of the problems of policing in many cities, and that's the attempt to use one tool--police work--to solve many problems that it's really not suited for. Can't fix the affordable housing problem? Have the police arrest the homeless. Dealing with the issues of poverty to hard and complicated? Just task the police with keeping a lid on all the growing frustration and anger. Basically, just make police responsible for dealing with the messes created by politicians' failures. I'm not a fan of the "defund" or "abolish" police movements, because the terms are unnecessarily provocative titles for a sensible movement about making the job of police smaller, or taking away all the responsibilities that shouldn't be theirs and which are not best handled by enforcement, anyway.
I have too many police in my life and family to view the institution as hopelessly irredeemable, but the system in some cities is stressed and stretched and damaged and damaging. And I believe that "defunding" would be immensely empowering for the best of our police and police departments. But there are lessons that teachers can learn from police and police unions in the current world.
The worst of police departments suffer from a bunker mentality. They have come to see their work as "us against them," with "them" being pretty much everyone else, from people on the street to politicians in City Hall. Because they have a whole raft of jobs that they can't possibly accomplish (fix poverty and homelessness by arresting people), they increasingly stressed, combative and, yes, racist.
Almost anyone who works in a school building recognizes the issue, plus one other that comes with it.
Extreme defensiveness. In the bunker, you never admit to any criticism from Them because you know in your gut that it will be used as a wedge to crack open your defenses and leave you vulnerable to all the other attacks that are about to be unleashed. That mindset is how you get the other 57 cops in the Buffalo super-duper cop squad quitting rather than admit, "Yeah, that shoving of a 75 year old man, no matter what his history of being annoying might have been, was over the top and shouldn't have happened." (Or maybe they were just cut loose by their union. Complicated.)
Teachers have been under relentless attack for at least two decades. It would be surprising if a bunker mentality hadn't developed. But that mentality does not serve teachers well, particularly not if they want to respond to the current crisis by doing the work. It's not a new problem--go look at every conversation in which someone says that we need more Black teachers in school and some white teachers get upset and start arguing that they are great teachers for their Black students. White fragility plus bunker mentality plus actual racism equals a school that has a hugely difficult time doing the work it needs to do. It takes leadership, both of the official and the personal type. And yes-- I know very well that the perception of being under attack for teachers is absolutely based in actual attacks (are you paranoid if they're really out to get you) which just makes being vulnerable enough to deal with our own shit and especially to say to some of our fiercest critics, "Yes, we screwed up on that one," all that harder. This work is complicated and twisty and involves balancing a whole lot of stuff. But if things are going to change, if things six months from now are not going to look just like six moths ago, then there is hard work to do.
When it comes to dealing with the students, the bunker mentality gives rise to Cartman Rules-- rules and confrontations that are all about "Respect my authority!" Which leads to an attempt to support authority with raw power, and that simply never ends well for anyone. The demonstrations have provided ample evidence of this, once again.
It's further complicated by vultures and bad actors all around. Another side lesson of these demonstrations and the pandemic pause has been that there are always people excited about the chance to set the world on fire and watch it burn, and there are always people ready to make a buck. The "defunding" movement is going to be embraced because for every responsibility removed from the police, there will be privatizing profiteers angling to get the contract. Teachers should keep an eye out, because we're already good at knowing this when we see it.
White folks have work to do, and white public school teachers, working in a system that by its nature reflects everything good and ill about society, have double the work to do. And not to make it seem to daunting, but it is work they will have to keep doing for the rest of their lives. That's a lifetime of explaining to colleagues why saying "All lives matter" is really missing the point, a lifetime of looking for ways to trying to promote justice and equity in systems that are not naturally inclined to welcome them.
This will not be easy. We have a national attention span problem. Even as everyone is caught up in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, everyone is also collectively deciding that the Covid-19 pandemic is over and just doesn't matter any more, not because of any actual evidence, but because we're mostly just tired of thinking about it and acting like it's a thing. People are looking at the current wave of demonstrations and declaring that This Time It's Different or that Everything Has Changed, but if there's one thing I know about this country, it's that there's nothing that's so traumatic and earthshaking that we can't collectively get over it in less than a year. Leaving, of course, a small section of the population to deal with it on their own while everyone else keeps asking, "Why don't you just get over it, already?" I suspect Black folks are pretty familiar with how that all goes.
I hope that a lot of folks in education are getting worked up, and I hope it's not in a "Let's find a march to go join in way" so much as a "Let's figure out how to work these issues of equity and justice into our curriculum for the coming years" or "Let's design and enact programs to better serve our students around these issues for the rest of ever" or even, "Let's start working on the state and local authorities to address inequities in funding and gerrymandering of school district boundaries." One Twitter commenter noted that white parents were bringing kids to marches even though those same parents would never let those children attend a predominantly Black, low-income neighborhood school. Educators should be addressing that. Educators should be addressing wealthy white neighborhoods that want to secede from the larger non-white non-wealthy district. Educators should be addressing racism among their colleagues. And White educators should be listening and reading (really--is there a better way to learn about anything?) and preparing to break the cycle. Just imagine how things might be different if White America had actually listened to Colin Kaepernick-- and not just listened, but done something.
From an interview with Ibram Kendi:
Education, love and exemplary black people will not deliver America from racism, Kendi says. Racist ideas grow out of discriminatory policies, he argues, not the other way around. And if his new center can help identify and dismantle those policies in the U.S. and around the world, he believes we can start to eliminate racism. At least that’s the goal.
Teachers are in a unique position to identify-- and change-- discriminatory policies. Let that be part of the work, too.
Today, tomorrow, the rest of the week, there will be more noise, more marching, more rumors, more violence. Please God, let people stay safe, and most of all, six months from now, may this nation look different in ways that actually mean something.