We are living in a dangerous time

What I hope the events in Ferguson have made clear to all Americans is that in 2014, we still live in dangerous times. I’m reminded of, and find myself turning back to, many important figures and texts from the Civil Rights era in American history, notably Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, some Langston Hughes, and essays from James Baldwin

King was told time and again to wait, criticized by the powerful everywhere he went. He was attacked by local clergy in Birmingham and labeled an “outside agitator” for his activism in Alabama. Like many of the contemporary activists in St. Louis, powerful people told his organization to stay away. King responded eloquently, in words that now appear in many anthologies of quotations and on posters in classrooms–including mine:  

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

Like Dr. King, Baldwin recognized the urgency of inequality and the subhuman treatment of Black Americans at the hands of the state. In some ways, Baldwin’s literary work represents a drawn-out response to DuBois’ famous question, ever on the lips of white Americans: “How does it feel to be a problem?” Black Americans are told, in multiple ways, that they are not quite citizens, not quite equal, in so many ways not yet a full member of society. It is particularly difficult to swallow in the context of the American dream, which promotes the mythology of success through striving. In a 1984 issue of Essence Magazine, Baldwin was in conversation with Audre Lord. They discussed that same question: how does it feel–to be Black in America, to be marginalized, to be–in 1903 when DuBois wrote, in the 1960′s and today in 2014–a problem?

JB: One of the dangers of being a Black American is being schizophrenic, and I mean ‘schizophrenic’ in the most literal sense. To be a Black American is in some ways to be born with the desire to be white. It’s a part of the price you pay for being born here, and it affects every Black person. We can go back to Vietnam, we can go back to Korea. We can go back for that matter to the First World War. We can go back to W.E.B. Du Bois – an honorable and beautiful man – who campaigned to persuade Black people to fight in the First World War, saying that if we fight in this war to save this country, our right to citizenship can never, never again be questioned – and who can blame him? He really meant it, and if I’d been there at that moment I would have said so too perhaps. Du Bois believed in the American dream. So did Martin. So did Malcolm. So do I. So do you. That’s why we’re sitting here.

AL: I don’t, honey. I’m sorry, I just can’t let that go past. Deep, deep, deep down I know that dream was never mine. And I wept and I cried and I fought and I stormed, but I just knew it. I was Black. I was female. And I was out – out – by any construct wherever the power lay. So if I had to claw myself insane, if I lived I was going to have to do it alone. Nobody was dreaming about me. Nobody was even studying me except as something to wipe out.

JB: You are saying you do not exist in the American dream except as a nightmare.

All of this is to point out the ridiculousness of calls for respectability in the Black community. No type of behavior, no cultural change or adjustment, and certainly no alteration in fashion can correct hundreds of years of white supremacy and oppression. In a nation built on the backs of African slaves, why is it that change is expected to come from the oppressed, rather than the oppressors? When half-wits like Bill O’Reilly decry urban fashion as a moral outrage, it is merely a distraction; when the mainstream media find mouthpieces of color to deliver this message, such as CNN’s Don Lemon, it becomes increasingly problematic. 

It is not the responsibility of Blacks to end racism. In fact, Blacks have always been victims of white supremacy, and many have endeavored valiantly to reform the power dynamics in this country. Many still do. The idea that minorities need to somehow earn equal rights through proper conduct erodes respect for our nation’s laws, particularly the 14th and 15th amendments, providing for equal treatment under the law and the full rights of citizenship for Black and white equally. 

Having cited several of my favorite writers and activists of color thus far, it only seems appropriate to bring in Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic in conclusion. In his first commentary on Michael Brown’s killing at the hands of Ferguson police, he artfully declares in the headline that “Black People Are Not Ignoring ‘Black on Black’ Crime,” going on to take down the very idea of respectability politics: 

The politics of respectability are, at their root, the politics of changing the subject—the last resort for those who can not bear the agony of looking their country in the eye. The policy of America has been, for most of its history, white supremacy. The high rates of violence in black neighborhoods do not exist outside of these facts—they evidence them.

This history presents us with a suite of hard choices. We do not like hard choices. Here’s a better idea: Let’s all get together and talk about how Mike Brown would still be alive if Beyoncé would make more wholesome music, followed by a national forum on how the charge of “acting white” contributes to mass incarceration. We can conclude with a keynote lecture on “Kids Today” and a shrug.

Unintended Consequences

One of the main reasons I decided to become a teacher and work in an urban public high school has to do with character. I believe deeply that every person is a product of his or her experiences–I suppose this puts me in the “nurture” camp on nature v. nurture. Of course the truth is somewhere in the middle, but my life has taught me that what happens to you is important in shaping who you are. This perspective is one reason I became a teacher–I expected the experience of teaching to change me in positive ways. I was choosing my identity as much as a profession, and I don’t regret any of that.

This doesn’t mean I tried to become the teachers from our favorite movies–although I truly admire characters like Jaime Escalante and Erin Gruwell. Good teaching has to be personal and personality-driven in some ways, so I was only ever intent on becoming Mr. E, rather than anyone else’s version of a teacher. For the most part, I realized my goals. Teaching has made me more compassionate, patient, and generous than I was before. I was drawn to teaching through my own idealism, so I endeavored to live up to my own high standards. Teachers were compassionate, patient and generous, as well as forgiving, energetic and a million other things, depending upon whom you ask and on which day. My own identity as a teacher shifts day-to-day, but some traits are durable. For that, I’m grateful.

I genuinely feel like teaching has made me a better human being, but I never expected to become so emotionally invested in my students. I knew teaching would require unflinching support, patience, strength, mentoring and generosity; I just didn’t expect to care so much about teenagers. In order to provide for my students and meet their needs, I ended up applying myself and investing my emotional energy in ways I could not have imagined.

Recently, I’ve been struggling with my relationship with one student in particular. We’ve had some disagreements, but the kid took to me right away. Almost in spite of myself, I reciprocated pretty quickly. Love and care for others is difficult to fake. I knew that this young man was in need, and so I tried my best to meet his needs, not only as his teacher but as a man who lacked a certain kind of love in my own youth. My father passed away when I was 7, and no men in my life have really served as a father figure. In some ways, this is why I love teaching and working with young people. I get to provide for others in ways no one ever provided for me, and that’s extremely rewarding. (*more on this in an upcoming post)

All of a sudden, entering my 4th year with the same group of students, I’ve found myself deeply reliant on students for my own feelings of self-worth and well-being. I’m closer to my students and student-athletes than most of the friends I have known in my life. I certainly spend more time with them. So when this particular young man–I described him to my mother as her first, unexpected grandchild–ended up in trouble not long ago, I was grateful that he called me and leaned on me for support. It felt (feels) wonderful to be able to provide some modicum of support. Then, with everything left up in the air, I didn’t hear from him for 10 days. Each day without contact, I was surprised by the amount of stress it caused me. Why did I care so much? Why couldn’t I focus on my own life?

A couple of my exes will tell you that I’m obsessed with my job, and they’re not wrong. I’ve interrupted more than one date for phone calls from students. Today, I’m less embarrassed to admit that than I once was, because I’ve come to realize that the value I place on relationships is just that–value that I invest. I’m in control of it. I decided to pick up the phone when these kids called instead of continuing whatever dull conversations I was having with dead-end dates. I chose, at least initially, to form a bond with so many of my students, and I don’t regret it. Even when I cant sleep because I’m wondering if this kid has a safe place to sleep, enough to eat, the love and care he so deserves, I appreciate the opportunity just to be a part of someone’s development. That I can contribute in a positive way is reward enough, not to mention the frequent reminders I receive that, even with my relative maturity, my students have plenty to teach me.

Earlier today, this student finally did call me back. He’s ok, still struggling with family problems and a rough home life. But he’s tough, and he’ll be alright. He apologized and explained being incommunicado for a week and a half by saying “I was trying to, ya know, find myself.” I half-chuckled, then queried what, if anything, he had found.

“Well, I came to realize that I cant let other people have control over me or my happiness…because they always let you down.” The kid is depressed right now, and all things considered, he has every right to feel that way. After trying to pick him up (I think successfully), I sat with that quote for a bit. Still am, in fact. Education is about self-discovery, now isn’t it…for students and teachers alike. 

Education and Identity

“What did you learn today?” I often ask students after class or at the end of a school day. In part, I want to know the answer for my own sake, but I also want students to be aware of their learning. Too often, education becomes transactional–do this for the grade, or the credit, or some other practical outcome. One of my administrators, in explaining the haphazard way in which students were put in one section, explained that the older students in a class of mostly underclassmen “just need the credit,” as if credits are a legitimate aim for schooling without regard to learning, knowledge and experience.

Education, especially secondary and postsecondary schooling, is meant to impart something more important. Teaching high school often has me searching for a persuasive answer to the question “Why do we have to do this?” That question also serves as a test for myself in planning–if I cant explain why I have students doing an activity or assignment, I throw it out. Time in school is too short, too precious to waste on inessential distractions. The list of distractions, in my mind, is inordinate, because our higher purpose stands in stark contrast to the everyday minutiae.

School is where students first make meaning of themselves and their existence. Young people have to form an identity in relation to the world. For the upper classes, college has long provided the time and opportunity to “find themselves.” All students need this opportunity, but more and more it is being removed even from the Ivy League and other elite universities. A former Yale professor advised young people and their parents to steer clear of these schools in a recent opinion piece in The New Republic:

“We’ve taught them,” David Foster Wallace once said, “that a self is something you just have.” But it is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being — a soul. The job of college is to assist you to begin to do that. Books, ideas, works of art and thought, the pressure of the minds around you that are looking for their own answers in their own ways.

College is not the only chance to learn to think, but it is the best. One thing is certain: If you haven’t started by the time you finish your B.A., there’s little likelihood you’ll do it later.

During my undergraduate years at a prestigious institution (mentioned in the article above), I was so conscious of being exposed–as (relatively) poor, ignorant, or otherwise undeserving of my place–that I failed to take the academic and personal risks that are essential in forming the contours of a self, or a stable identity. Working in an urban public school after college reminded me of how limited my education to that point had been. I learned more about myself through teaching and mentoring young people than I did in four dedicated years of academic study. I expect this is a pretty common experience for my peers who went into public service after college.

My identity today is deeply connected to my profession. I wonder, when considering future career options, how I might personally be affected by changing jobs. When I began teaching, I knew it was temporary. The job of a public school teaching–all apologies to my colleagues–is damn near impossible. As a recent opinion piece on the Huffington Post argues, there is simply never enough when it comes to teaching–time, resources, etc. Even mediocre teaching is exhausting, soul-sucking and depressing at times. It is also an extraordinary gift, and I wouldn’t trade my experiences to this point…but I am unable to shake the feeling that I simply cannot keep this up.

Despite my criticism of Teach For America (e.g. here), I’m at risk of following their model too closely for comfort. I may burn out after two years in the classroom. I might be tempted by “greener pastures” elsewhere…I could make more money and have less stress at work without much searching. My big concern is how a career change would affect my identity, my self. Who am I, if not an educator? What would a career change mean for me, personally and spiritually?

Welp, we’ll play it by ear for the time being. Education is all about discovery.

What Finish Line?

I’m always reluctant to write about specific students–partially for privacy reasons, and also out of respect. I’m not comfortable asking, and they generally haven’t agreed to have their stories told publicly, and I respect that, even when I come across a really phenomenal story. It isn’t my job to tell their stories, even in support of my own. It’s tough to resist at times, but the fear of being proven wrong about “success” keeps me from declaring premature victory with any of my students. Other times, they earn their own shine, and in those cases, I’m only too thrilled to amplify.

Robeson track runners (from l.) Jasheen Holloway, Mergaran Poleon, Kiambu Gall and Tahmel Anderson are pumped after competing in the Milrose Games trials at the Armory Track and Field Center in Washington Heights last month.

PEARL GABEL/ NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

Today, the NY Daily News beat me to it in the case of one Jasheen Holloway (far left). He’s a student-athlete on the track team I help to coach who, as you can read in today’s paper, has already overcome tremendous odds to get to where he is today. The story, told with compassion, verges on fairy tale: kid has rough childhood and is “saved” by sport and caring adults. I don’t compare it to fairy tale to diminish the remarkable adults in Jasheen’s life, my colleague(s) included. But, he’s 16, halfway through his sophomore year of high school. He’s running impressive times on the track and he’s an amazing athlete, but…he’s 16.

Let’s not simplify individual lives to form a neat narrative arc. This story hasn’t received a “happy ending” yet, and he’s nowhere near a mythical finish line. Jasheen reminds me of several young men I have known who came up in extraordinarily difficult circumstances: he is older and younger than his years. He’s seen far too much and, at the same time, he hasn’t been exposed to nearly enough of the world. Abuse can force kids to grow up before they’re ready, leaving them with remnants of childishness well into adolescence. That’s matched by a hard edge that can only come with the intimate awareness of having seen parents and loved ones turn their backs on you.

In truth, he’s one of the kids who keeps me awake at night, worried, wondering, hoping. Will he be able to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and earn a college degree? I don’t know if he’ll make up the academic deficits he came into high school with, I don’t know if he can stay healthy and keep getting faster so that he can earn a scholarship and run in college. Education is all uncertain…

A glowing article in the Daily News is success worth celebrating, even if it’s full of minor errors and doesn’t even mention the team’s head coach (I don’t mind, really). This kid works hard and, over a pretty short time, he’s shown tremendous growth. I hope the article serves as motivation for him and for others who are in similar situations. This is why high school sports and other extracurricular activities are essential. Algebra typically doesn’t engage kids in school; it is a rare teenager who forms an identity around academics. It should be clear, though, that school is where young people make meaning and form identities.

Where are the White Men?

How often do you see the question posed in the title? Ever? It seems that most everywhere I go, there’s no shortage of white men; it’s true in nearly every sphere of American life. White men are never invisible–it is the most privileged identity on the planet. Not coincidentally, I find that causes and perspectives represented publicly by women and people of color tend to be marginalized. I have no right or need to speak on issues of race and gender, though I feel compelled to do so on a near daily basis.

I’m often reminded by wise friends who are women and/or people of color that the role of an ally is to listen. I wholeheartedly accept this advice. I’m proudly striving to become a better ally to all who seek relief from oppression–whether on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, political or religious identity, poverty or disability. I’m reminded of a post from someone who shares much of my identity privilege; he recounts being asked by young people with privilege how they can become better allies, and his response is simple: listen.

Normally, I find this suggestion compelling. I used to find it excruciating to listen to stories from friends and acquaintances about oppression, because more often than not, the oppressor looked like me. One of my students recently apologized to me for telling a story like this, where the villain was a “crazy white dude.” I told her to take it back, because I’ve arrived at the point where I no longer feel guilty for the sins of other Caucasians. Yet, I’m the only white man in the lives of many of my students. For this reason, while I still remind myself to listen better daily, I’ve decided that passive listening is insufficient.

The more precise question that could form the title of this piece is, “where are the white men speaking out on educational justice and equity?” In my head, this sounded like a reasonable question, but looking at it on paper, I have to wonder whether it is somehow insensitive. I often follow the #edujustice chat on Twitter, and the movement is driven by passionate, energetic people from all walks of life.  It isn’t that the cause needs more whiteness or maleness…quite the opposite, in fact.

Yet, unlike other issues where I worry about being a good ally to the extent that I remain silent, I am a participant in a system/society that oppresses and marginalizes poor and minority youth. So while I might follow the lead of Black friends and colleagues when it comes to the use of the n-word, educational justice is deeply personal. As a public school teacher and a citizen–not to mention a student at a public university–educational justice matters to me. But my identity can serve as a hindrance, because I want to hear others’ voices, I want teachers of color and women to have the stage more than they currently do, but I also want progress on the issues that I care about–desegregation, equal opportunity, the list goes on and on.

Jose Vilson has been an inspiration on these questions. He has written at some length about how teacher’s rights and are inextricably linked with women’s rights. To wit:

Most teachers are women, and most higher-level administrators are men. Thus, we can attribute the disconnect, at least partially, to the fact that, when men make laws, they do so often to exclude. Anytime we don’t make language easy to access for everyone, we can very deliberately find ways to exclude people who don’t have access to said language.

As such, even male teachers who want to speak up are often disregarded because teaching is seen as women’s work, a multilayered, intersectional understanding of the way power works in education.

P.L. Thomas also provides insight into the question, where are teachers in our debate on education reform? He draws a compelling parallel to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, with a narrator who is “invisible…simple because people refuse to see me…they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imaginations—indeed, everything and anything except me.” It is a harsh but accurate description of the treatment of all teachers in the public debates around education policy. Thomas offers a lengthy diatribe against the status quo, but his central point is that teachers have to be part of the conversation.

The current reform agenda fails to seek from teachers themselves either what the primary challenges are facing education or what credible solutions would best address those hurdles. As a result, teachers as invisible workers rebel as Ellison’s narrator does, by hibernating and embracing their autonomy and agency in ways that do not serve them, their students, or education well.

The factors contributing to the invisibility of teachers in the public debates about education are manifold, but race and gender absolutely play major roles. Teaching as a profession is viewed by many as less-than; women’s work. Vilson makes the argument that male teachers have a responsibility to talk about gender, and he does so effectively; I would argue that in a similar way, white teachers have a duty to talk about race. I’m proud to work at a school with a diverse teaching force, and frankly, I wish my colleagues would speak out more often and with more urgency about the problems in our profession. But it cant be the sole responsibility of women or POC to rectify injustice. The opposite is true, in fact. White men like me have an even greater duty to call out oppression and speak truth to power, because inevitably, that oppression comes from a power structure that is mostly white and male.

So here’s my New Year’s Resolution, even though I long ago resolved not to make commitments I’m bound to break…

In 2014, I will strive to follow Edwidge Danticat’s advice for aspiring writers: “Seek your truth, and tell it…It is a harder thing to sit in silence.” Here’s to more frequent writing and truth-telling from this teacher in the new year.

Obama Leaning to the Left?

After avoiding blame for the government shutdown and focusing the country on bumbling Republicans and their failure to offer any substantive policy proposals that would address the lagging economy, President Obama has begun to outline his domestic policy agenda in recent days.

In a speech at Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) on Friday, the President highlighted the need to invest in domestic priorities like public education and workforce development, two cornerstones of the school. This was Obama’s first official visit to Brooklyn, and he struck a surprisingly partisan tone in speaking to an audience fairly split between public school students and teachers on one side, and bigwig politicians, bureaucrats and aides, crowding the tiny gym at Paul Robeson High School, where P-TECH is co-located.

The emphasis was on laying out a budget, getting back to work and doing right by the people, points made in the roughly 30-minute speech. The audience of high school students gave the President a chance to simplify complex topics, like budgeting, for example. He introduced students to the idea of budgeting and made a strong case for investing greater resources in public education and other domestic policies that have been threatened with or suffered from budget cuts in recent years. These cuts, he said “have not helped our economy grow. They have held us back.”

Could this rhetoric and the visit itself suggest a shift towards a more progressive domestic agenda? I was in the audience for the speech, and it felt more like a campaign than a presidential address…here’s hoping that the Democrats push aggressively for promoting education, poverty reduction and greater investment in the American people in general.

The speech will be remembered for a one-liner that could be the slogan for a major campaign to increase education spending:

“If you think education is expensive, wait until you see how much ignorance costs.”

 

Imitation and Flattery

Charles Caleb Colton was an English writer best known for the aphorism “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” That quotation has stuck with me over time, especially since I began working with young people. When I was a kid and I used to copy my older brother, a cousin or my parents, I never recognized or intended it as flattery. Usually, I wanted to annoy them, especially big bro. Underneath that, though, there was absolutely an element of honor in the mimicry typical of younger kids.

As I grew older, I had less desire to imitate anyone. I didn’t really have a role model in my life after my father died (when I was 7), so I tried on a few different borrowed personalities and personas, not settling on much of anything beyond sarcasm through my teenage years. To make a long story short, I had a really rough time adjusting to college, largely because I realized that I didn’t like the person I was at that point. After an excellent liberal arts education and some amazing nonacademic experiences, I figured a few things out to some extent…well, still am, to be honest. Importantly, I reckoned with my masculinity as a fatherless son, coming to terms with the idea that I would have to define my own values. Like my cousin once told me, I had no choice but to be a “self-made man.”

Now that I’m a teacher and a coach at a high school with a predominantly male student body, I am shocked by how much time I spend thinking about masculinity. In central Brooklyn and in the African-American community at large, fatherless sons are everywhere. Oprah even offers a “life class” on the topic, whatever that is. When I was coming up, I used to imagine the lives of children of divorce with intense jealousy, convinced that having any father was better than none. That, I know now, is far from true–and I should add, I’m grateful for the yeoman’s work my mother did to get all three of her children through college.

Many of my students have absent fathers, abusive fathers, and parents who are flawed in all kinds of ways. That’s typical of any community, but it seems from my observation that young black men in Brooklyn are particularly prone to unhealthy (or nonexistent) relationships with their fathers. One of my favorite student-athletes, now in his 3rd year, first mentioned his father to me when he was in 9th grade. Out of the blue, here’s what he said to me:

My dad’s voice is so deep, it scares me sometimes…he just got out of jail so he hasn’t been in my life for very long. You know, white people get locked up, too.

This young man is mixed, with a Black mother and a white father. Since that time, he’s told me a lot of terrible things about his father–mostly vague, nothing that could be reported as abuse, but he does not like his dad. For whatever reason, this kid has attached himself to me; it doesn’t hurt that he’s one of my star players and starting his second year in my social studies class. The soccer team I coach…well, we stink. The team is very young and has some potential, but we’re not competitive at the moment. My young protege has the bad habit of, well, acting a fool whenever we lose. He has a temper that he often cant control. After our last defeat, a really miserable performance all around, he screamed at his teammates and threatened to quit the team. He would later apologize, but that tirade was fresh in my mind leading up to today’s game.

Today, we played a miserable, frustrating game against a vastly better team. We lost by a big margin, but the game was played in a pretty good spirit–largely because of this one kid. I was shocked by the upbeat attitude and positive approach he displayed. More than once, he echoed comments I made to the team verbatim; nothing poetic, but it was all positive and a real shock coming from him. He was picking up his teammates, encouraged the team to work harder, and genuinely sounding like a leader. Hearing myself quoted back gave me pause for a couple reasons. First, I was reminded that I’m a role model who is under intense scrutiny whenever I’m at work. High school students are extremely observant (sometimes), and it often surprises me. Having said that, I work hard to conduct myself in a way that I would be proud to see mimicked back by my students…so tonight, I’m beaming.

This kid had no intention of flattering me, and I’m not sure that he repeated my comments self-consciously. It’s very possible that only I noticed it. In any case, it’s a healthy reminder that teachers, coaches, and the other adults who are involved in the lives of young people can and do have an extraordinary impact. At the end of a tough week, it gave me a much-needed pickup along with inspiration for the work ahead.

Quick Notes on Inspiration

Wrestling over what to do with my future, I thought back on some inspiring quotations. I found myself looking back at a quote I first saw many years ago. At first, I dismissed it as both unimportant and erroneous, but I’ve come to see deeper value as I’ve grown older.

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

From The Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupéry, one of the best-selling books ever. This is one canonical work I’ve never picked up, and I’m not sure why. For years, all I knew about the book was this quote, and like I said, I dismissed it on first read. But this past week, it’s been playing through my mind in a loop.

My disposition is to over-analyze and think my way through every problem. The result is that I know a lot of stuff and can make reasonably well-informed decisions about lots of things–what to buy, where to eat, how to get places. On the other side, my inability to think in any other way hampers my ability to reflect and make important personal decisions. It’s a flaw.

There’s simply no way to rationally analyze what’s most important to you, what your values demand and how to chart a path forward. This part of life–the central part–is as Saint-Exupery says, both essential and invisible to the eye. It took a bit of tumult and a few headaches for me to figure this out, but I got here. Some things cant be thought out. Sometimes, you just have to follow your heart.

Teaching is an effort that requires whole-soul investment and commitment, and like any single guy, I’m terrified of commitment. But it’s worth it. Teaching is also the most rewarding project I’ve ever engaged in, enriching and challenging and amazing. Some days, it’s also deadening, heartbreaking and impossible, but even on the worst days, it’s worth it.

Education is learning to value what is valuable.

Silver Lining of Zimmerman Acquittal

My reaction to the jury’s not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman came in a couple of distinct phases. Initially, I took it in stride and mentally added it to the centuries of injustice that have befallen black Americans, next to Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner. Over the day or so that followed, I read a number of reactions and discussed the verdict with friends. By Sunday evening, I was in mourning. The depth of the statement made in Florida resonated, and I recognized how deeply victimizing it must feel for African Americans and others of dark complexion. As a middle class white man, I felt devastated, and I felt guilty.

But wait! There is bright side. One of the many wonders of the Internet is the way media narratives have become decentralized. Lately, the corner of the blogosphere that I read has been atwitter with the personal accounts of black men who felt the verdict most intimately. Their general premise seems to be “We get it, we ain’t shit. Thanks for the reminder.” Black men and their loved ones weren’t surprised Trayvon’s killer got off, because they knew Trayvon was always going to be guilty of being young, black and male. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • From ?uestlove, the inspiration for this theme: Trayvon Martin and I Ain’t Shit, which includes a revealing anecdote from the drummer’s day-to-day looking “primitive, exotic-looking — six-foot-two, 300 pounds, uncivilized Afro, for starters”.
  • Eugene Robinson, writing for the Washington Post: Black boys denied the right to be young. “If anyone wonders why African Americans feel so passionately about this case, it’s because we know that our 17-year-old sons are boys, not men. It’s because we know their adolescent bravura is just that — an imitation of manhood, not the real thing.”
  • Liz Dwyer (who you may know from the education beat at GOOD): Thank You, Post-Racial America for Making it Clear That it’s Open Season on my Black Sons. “Like every other black person I know, I have no choice but to accept the reality of living in an America that has a dehumanized vision of blackness as part of its foundation.”
  • One of my favorite writers on social issues, Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic: Trayvon Martin and the Irony of American Justice. “It is painful to say this: Trayvon Martin is not a miscarriage of American justice, but American justice itself. This is not our system malfunctioning. It is our system working as intended.”
  • Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker: George Zimmerman, Not Guilty: Blood on the Leaves. Like the author, I also walked out of Fruitvale Station moments before the verdict was released. The film closes with white text on a black screen, announcing that the officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant–unarmed, young and black–in 2008 served 11 months. “The most damning element here is not that George Zimmerman was found not guilty: it’s the bitter knowledge that Trayvon Martin was found guilty.”

When justice passes by, so patently not served, standing up begins with giving testimony. Millions of black men have been profiled, victimized and criminalized by society. These authors deserve a wider audience for their valuable, insightful contributions to the debate over the verdict’s meaning and where we go from here.

Education is Dismantling Inequality

The not guilty verdict in George Zimmernan’s trial left many observers feeling sad, angry, but also motivated. Anger is appropriate at a moment like this, but not if it remains idle. We must channel frustration over a system that devalues and criminalizes black men into meaningful social and political change. What leads our society to a place where six white women allow this killer to walk free–whether he is a murderer or a manslaughter-er, the fact that Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin is not in dispute.

I went to college in Boston and I live in Brooklyn, so my social circle is pretty liberal on the whole. Most of the reactions I’ve heard, from folks of all races, include disappointment and anger. Too often at times like these, we forget the sage advice of Rahm Emanuel: don’t let a serious crisis go to waste.

The acquittal of the assailant in this case is an obvious travesty of justice, but it reflects something much deeper about the state of race relations and inequality in the United States. After Occupy Wall Street was lambasted for not “having an agenda,” I decided that, although I value collaborative dialogue and the democratic process, there’s also value in crying out. What are the specific changes that could contribute to dismantling the corrupt, unequal system that led to Zimmerman walking free?

  • End the drug war.
  • Legalize marijuana possession. Blacks are 4 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession, even though usage rates are equivalent.
  • Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug violations.
  • Implement real gun control laws to limit the availability of deadly weapons.
  • Stop racial profiling in the police force. The NYPD is guilty of one of the largest profiling programs in the world, and it continues with impunity.
  • Replace suspension and other punitive, exclusionary forms of school discipline with restorative justice and therapeutic approaches.
  • Each one, teach one. If you have earned a stable position in life, give your time to mentoring a young person who doesn’t have the support system he or she needs.

 

Finally, let’s stop this talk of times being bad for black men “like never before,” as Al Sharpton said in a recent Daily Beast/Newseek article. It is essential to talk about the legacy of the criminalization and marginalization of black men, because it is deeply relevant to today. From slavery to Jim Crow, there has always been impunity in the law for killing black men. It was official U.S. policy for hundreds of years that blacks were property, not humans, and so their lives had less value than a thoroughbred horse. 100 years after the end of slavery, black men like Emmett Till and Medgar Evers were savagely murdered with impunity. Times are better than they once were, but the abuse of black men is inextricably linked to that legacy. The powers that be have gotten better at the insidious practice of subjugation, hiding racism from public view most of the time.

A crisis like the acquittal of George Zimmerman mustn’t go to waste. Use the opportunity to make a difference because the time is always ripe to do what is right. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Education is most valuable when it takes a stand and has a definite perspective. Education is activism, and it is due time more of our young people became active.