When Black Students Are Under Assault

Sharif El-Mekki
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.

Public schools, it seems, are the fresh front in the culture wars, the next democratic institution to undermine and remake in the sanitized sepia of revisionist white supremacy. The politics of white grievance have always spread through mis-education. 

Fresh off a series of electoral repudiations of various efforts to acknowledge in meaningful terms the impact of systemic racism on our children, our schools and society, and a general gnashing of teeth from white conservatives, there is a moment of possibility in the air for alt-right demagogues and would-be heirs to the MAGA trash throne.  

Senator Josh Hawley is seizing the moment of white parent worries to, well, who really knows what end. What we do know is that his so-called Parents Bill of Rights is yet another Orwellian turn by the Senator who has played a leading role in the Bill Lie and the January 6th insurrection flowing from it. The legislation appears to try to validate the book-burning proclivities of the alt-right by spotlighting the collections of public school libraries, curriculum changes and school budgets for no other reason than to stoke the outrage bonfire.  Each component of the bill, a direct response to one or another faux controversy in our public schools. 

The Senator and his ilk would have you believe that the post-George Floyd era of a broader public acknowledgement that, yes, Black Lives do Matter in our schools and broader society is somehow an existential threat to the privileged position within public education that most White folks have enjoyed since the whole thing kicked off. 

The concept of supremacy is so imbedded in the white society that it will take many years for color to cease to be a judgmental factor. – Dr. Martin Luther King

As Black educators and activists, men who have committed themselves to taking head on the inequities, disparities and injustices our Black and Brown children face in school and life, we can assure you, Senator Hawley and radical right-wing Americans everywhere, you are in no way facing a sudden change of fortune. 

Would that it were so simple!

White America’s power and position are so deeply entrenched in the very fabric of American schooling and society, the notion that it can be dislodged or undermined by the modicum diversity, equity and inclusion work now being done in our public schools would be utterly laughable if it didn’t have such chilling and dangerous consequences for Black and Brown children.  From how we finance public schools to how we assign our children to them, the prevailing structure of traditional public education is inexorably tilted against Black and Brown students. The form and function of our traditional public school systems are a direct reflection of historical political power dynamics produced by racial and economic inequity. 

A couple new PD sessions for teachers isn’t going to change that.  

Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn. – Dr. Martin Luther King

But it isn’t just the Josh Hawleys of the world that are trotting in these environs.  There are voices in more conservative corners of the school reform and choice world that have you think that the neighborhood elementary school is now a center of some kind of intellectual revolt that will at best prove counterproductive to the pursuit of academic improvement and at worst harm your children. 

To our right-of-center colleagues who, like us, believe that there is power in public school choice, we challenge you to resist the soft bigotry of low expectations for yourself and the public schools that you care so much about.  Our schools can both affirm the fundamental worth of Black and Brown students and at the same time teach them to read. They can give them the skills to ascend to success in the world of work and at the same time equip them with the capabilities to engage productively in their Black and Brown communities. 

What many of these fellow travelers on the public school choice road who are uneasy with a continued focus on what they deride as the “woke agenda” fail to understand and fully appreciate is that a child cannot learn if she does not feel valued. She cannot thrive if her school shows contempt, subtly or overtly, for her culture and community. 

“…large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about social justice and humanity.” -Dr. Martin Luther King

These fellow travelers are playing a dangerous game, however.  For as they seek to rationalize their uneasiness with a full and honest exploration of the reach and impact of systemic racism on our schools and students, they risk providing intellectual cover and validation to the fringe that Senator Hawley counts as a political base.  

Criticism of how we do the work of building positive racial identities and dismantling the endemic racism of our public institutions is often unfair, clouded with racism.  What a privilege it is to play armchair theorist about another community’s freedom efforts.

We must be critical of our own projects and open to how to do it better if we are to live up to our obligations to do right by our students and communities.  Thoughtful conversations, even if we disagree on some things, like the recent series by writer Matthew Yglesias, can, at times, be valuable to our work and as we try to do it even better – I actually want my students to read things that they may disagree with as a part of their critical thinking muscles and habits. 

What isn’t useful or productive, however, are ignorant and racist efforts that would have us willfully overlook the systemic indignities that Black and Brown children and communities suffer daily because talking about it can be uncomfortable – to white people, but not uncomfortable for Black and Brown people to live it. 

I am sorry to say that the vast majority of White Americans are racists, either consciously or subconsciously. – Dr. Martin Luther King

Black and Brown children, like all children, need access to safe, high-quality public schools that affirm them as individuals and equip them with the skills they need to build successful lives.  As Black men we know, intuitively, that for all three of those things to happen, our schools and educators need to actively engage in self-reflection and interrogate bias both personal and systemic.  That work is vital to building successful schools, not besides the point as some of our fellow travelers might say, or dangerous as the Josh Halweys of the world think.  

It is quite literally the very least we can do for our children. 

What do you think?

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