At the close of each Black History Month I often feel a profound sense of loss. This feeling is not because there will be less programming that deals with the plight of people of African descent on television, fewer commercials from multimillion dollar corporations claiming they “care” about our communities, or because the classrooms of America will once again settle into their predominantly White curricula. Instead, I feel the pain of a missed opportunity to engage how race continues to shape our lives today, not just historically. However, at the close of this Black History Month, I felt the prospect of hope come from a thirteen year old in Rochester, New York – Jada Williams.
Jada wrote an essay that was based on The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass that compared the conditions of slavery to the contemporary educational plight of students in her local public school. While this could have been considered an insightful analysis of the adjusted yet continued subordination of Black, Brown, and poor people, instead it was read as offensive by her teacher. When I read this, I was not surprised, rather I was reminded of the distances that we have to go to remind ourselves and others that racial mistreatment is not simply a thing of the past but a reality in the present.
A cursory look at school statistics from Rochester New York reminds us that children who graduate local schools are under-prepared for the future. Recent data shows that only 5 percent of Black students in Rochester high schools graduate with the most competitive diploma available (Regents with Advanced Designation) and only 50 percent of Black students graduate at all in four years. When the chances of graduating a school district are equal to a flip of a coin, we know something must be done about schooling. The increased emphasis on test scores and graduation rates however does not mean that simple solutions abound.
While some see the performance of Rochester schools and the reaction of Jada’s teacher as reasons to close schools and gut staffs, more nuanced solutions are needed. Fredrick Douglass’ fight to raise consciousness around the need to abolish slavery and racial oppression should inspire our efforts around transforming our schools and communities. It was Douglass who said, “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without plowing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
When it comes to contemporary school inequality, there has been a trend in denying anyone the right to be held accountable for the condition of our institutions. Schools in Black and Latino communities have been crumbling for decades across the United States and this is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. There are a multitude of reasons for their failure: outdated curricula, underprepared teachers, disconnection between home and school, overcrowding, historic inequalities in resources, differences in family backgrounds to name just a few. Blaming teachers or students would miss the greater picture of how race in America has shaped historic access to quality education and opportunity and how that history influences today’s schools.
Jada’s essay can be seen an indictment of a single teacher or a call to greater conscious about what has happened within our nation’s schools. Rather than plow through the muddy terrain of a racial past and present, far too many people want to opt for quick fixes and hope we can repair race related inequalities without discussing race. Schools of this nation fail not just along class lines but also race lines. The current fervor within media to define school failure as solely a class issue misses the sets of racial hazards that students must also negotiate both inside and outside the classroom.
I am thankful that Jada’s essay re-opened a conversation about race and educational opportunity that is all too often foreclosed before candid conversations can occur. The question that remains now: are we bold enough to discuss race and challenge those who remain silent on its role?
Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York. His work concentrates on race, education and gender. You can follow him on Twitter at @dumilewis or visit his offical website