By now the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks have permeated our national dialogue. That is to say, most white Americans can identify them as the latest victims of an unjust and violent policing culture in our country.
And while police violence is a daily threat to people of color, it is just one articulation of the deadly inequity of our society. The COVID-19 pandemic is another chilling instance of it. We see it acutely here in Philadelphia. Black residents have been hospitalized more than all other races and ethnicities combined, and they are dying at twice the rate of white Philadelphians.
As a Black man, more generally, I have lived among the fallout of structural racism and institutionalized injustice in my own life. As a Black educator, I have seen its pernicious reach through the lives of my students. I myself have been arrested, assaulted and harassed by police during my time as a teacher and principal.
When I reflect on the sweeping movement now underway, I cannot help but wonder if our newly woke allies sharing out social media solidarity will truly stand with us after their sudden indignation settles. Once corporate America decides this “moment” has passed, will Black Lives (still) Matter? All of which underscores the fundamental question: What would it look like for this nation to give full, enduring meaning to the term Black Lives Matter?
As a Black educator, the answer is clear to me: In order to ensure that Black Lives Matter, we must ensure that Black Minds Matter. We must start with our schools.
For generations, the color of your skin and your zip code have been the essential determinants of your academic and, therefore, economic success or failure. Still now, Black children are five times as likely to attend highly segregated schools and twice as likely to attend a high-poverty school as their white peers, which yields massive funding disparities. School districts serving mostly Black and brown children receive $23 billion less in funding annually than whiter districts. Our education system is not simply broken for Black and brown children; rather, it is constructed specifically to disadvantage them at every turn.
Even today, as schools around the country start the school year with buildings closed due to COVID-19, wealthier white families are forming “pandemic pods,” finding private tutors to support their students in their distance learning. Meanwhile, Black and brown children are enduring the slow death of poor instruction in underfunded and often failing schools.
Achievement and opportunity gaps abound, especially for Black males. Fewer than 6 in 10 Black males graduate from high school, compared with more than 80 percent of their white peers. A study in my hometown of Philadelphia found that 87 percent of those few Black males who do graduate from high school attain no post-high-school training, certification or degree of any kind. Just 9 percent obtained a four-year degree.
That anemic degree attainment means that we have a massive shortage of Black men in the professional workplace. The shortage of Black male educators is where we see it most acutely — just 2 percent of teachers nationally identify as Black men. The profoundly positive impact that Black teachers can have on Black students and students of all backgrounds is clear. From higher graduation rates to reduced dropout rates, fewer disciplinary issues, more positive views of schooling and better test scores, the effect is especially strong on Black boys.
I founded the Center for Black Educator Development because I know the transformational power that attracting and developing more Black educators holds for Black students, schools and entire communities. It is for that reason that, despite the entrenched structural racism that we continue to face, I remain hopeful that we may yet see a fairer and more just America in the future.
But hope by itself is no assurance. For Black lives to matter, the national consciousness must also embrace the notion that Black minds matter. More than simply embracing the idea, we must do the work — meaningfully and substantially. Ensuring that all children have access to high-quality public school options staffed by more Black and brown educators would be a powerful place to start.
Our shared destiny as a nation, dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal, hangs in the balance.
This blog was originally posted on The 74.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.