When Black Students Organize Are They Viewed As A Threat?

What is it about Black people gathering (or loitering) that unsettles white folks, or makes them nervous?

It unsettled white folks when enslaved Africans gathered for secret meetings at night. Because those meetings were with the purpose of resistance. Black folk taught each other to read, and planned actions of escape or actions of revolt. When recently emancipated Black folk gathered together, it unsettled white folks. It unsettled them because those meetings were with the purpose of liberation.

Black folk planned businesses, built communities, and educated one another. When in the Jim Crow South, Black folk gathering unsettled white folks. Because those meetings were rooted in dismantling the doctrine of separate but equal. Black folk planned marches, sit-ins, freedom rides, freedom schools, and various other forms of protest.

I guess to answer my own question, when we gather, when we meet, we do so to resist whiteness, white supremacy, and systemic racism to live out our humanity more fully. That unsettles white folks (a) who believe that to thrive in a society that exploits and commits violence on them, Black folk must suffer even more violence and (b) those who commit the violence. It unsettles white folks because when we gather, it threatens them.

This truth helps to explain the recent events at Collingswood High School, located in South Jersey. In response to the formation of a Black Student Union, a group of white students created a White Student Union as a joke. That joke of a group evolved into a hate group of seven to nine white students at the high school. According to reports:

The superintendent alleges that the students made “inflammatory racial slurs and threats of physical violence, [that were] verbalized, directed towards [other] students.” The same high-schoolers are also alleged to have defaced a vehicle belonging to a white student with the same racial slurs they had directed at their Black peers.

Currently, the superintendent is “working with all the families that are involved on both sides of the issue to make sure that young people can move forward.” Also, the municipality’s DEI committee is working diligently to address this matter as part of a larger initiative designed to dismantle all forms of injustice in all schools in the town. Those white students did what they did because they felt threatened.

When I operated an after-school program for a local high school, I was approached by Black students to inquire about forming a Black Student Union (BSU) as part of our program. This was in the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. They came to me with the idea, a rollout, and a list of signatures.

I took it to our administration and gave my wholehearted endorsement. I was informed that a BSU didn’t qualify as an afterschool program but was a club. That meant that the BSU wouldn’t benefit from support with promotion, resources, and other benefits from our program… it meant that the BSU would have to figure out how to build and grow absent the support of the school… support to “exist” would have to be enough. Those white administrators did what they did because they felt threatened.

Some folks may disagree… that a BSU threatened none of these white folks at their school… that those students were just misguided and an isolated incident… that the administration was simply ensuring that the BSU fell in line with the district categorical guideline for afterschool programs and clubs. But a BSU is threatening. Because a BSU will highlight racism and injustice among the student body, faculty, administration, and the policies of the school and district. The BSU is a threat to the status quo rooted in the exploitation of and violence against Black students.

I’ve lived long enough to know that hit dogs will holler and white folks who uphold whiteness and white supremacy hate being called out and hate seeing it removed. In the minds of oppressors, removing oppression represents a sort of oppression imparted upon them because now, they cannot oppress. Famed sociologist Paulo Freire, in his book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, said:

But even when the contradiction is resolved authentically by a new situation established by the liberated laborers, the former oppressors do not feel liberated. On the contrary, they genuinely consider themselves to be oppressed. Conditioned by the experience of oppressing others, any situation other than their former seems to them like oppression. Formerly, they could eat, dress, wear shoes, be educated, travel, and hear Beethoven; while millions did not eat, had no clothes or shoes, neither studied nor traveled, much less listened to Beethoven.

Any restriction on this way of life, in the name of the rights of the community, appears to the former oppressors as a profound violation of their individual rights—although they had no respect for the millions who suffered and died of hunger, pain, sorrow, and despair. For the oppressors, “human beings” refers only to themselves; other people are “things…” However, the restraints imposed by the former oppressed on their oppressors, so that the latter cannot reassume their former position, do not constitute oppression. An act is oppressive only when it prevents people from being more fully human.

Because of white fragility, Black children cannot gather in schools to resist whiteness, white supremacy, and systemic racism to live out their humanity more fully. That’s more than unfortunate. It’s criminal… just like failing to teach all children Black history, but I digress.

BSUs are important because they provide Black students with an organized voice within a school. Equally important is that with a BSU, white students must be taught that rather than a threat to their existence, it’s designed to liberate us all by way of attacking injustices that truly threaten us all. This is the work of the BSU.

What’s needed isn’t opposition but rather support. It’s not enough to condemn racism and injustice. It takes an act of courage to do the work of dismantling racism and injustice. One thing I wish BSUs could do is give white educators in positions of power to do the work.


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