Racisim, Xenophobia, and the Election

By the Editors of Rethinking Schools
Ricard Morales Levins
As teachers and students return to classrooms this fall, together we have to try to make sense of a tumultuous presidential campaign and a summer of racial violence that have forcefully surfaced the racism that plagues our nation.

Elementary and middle school students have grown up with an African American as president of the United States. This is a historic milestone. But these same students have also grown up in a nation that’s increasingly unequal, a country where police killed more Black people in 2015 than were lynched during the worst year of Jim Crow.

In the past several months, students have watched Donald Trump use racist, Islamophobic, misogynist, and anti-immigrant vitriol to whip up a terrifying level of support, with ominous repercussions no matter who wins the election.

Even as Black Lives Matter has spearheaded a growing movement against police violence, our children have been subjected to an unending stream of police murders of Black and Brown people, including the recent videos of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, wrote after watching those videos: “We all know, deep down, that something more is required of us now. This truth is difficult to face because it’s inconvenient and deeply unsettling. And yet silence isn’t an option.”

We hope that teachers will view these disturbing developments not as issues too controversial to talk about, but rather as teachable moments to address white supremacy and our nation’s rich history of movements for justice and equality.

In these scary times, the courageous undocumented youth of the Dreamers, the Movement for Black Lives (a collective of more than 50 organizations, including the Black Lives Matter Network), and thousands of other activists are providing light and hope. Powerful teaching confronts the dangers squarely and also builds on their examples and those of other young people standing up for justice. When a student put up a “Build a Wall” banner in Forest Grove High School in Oregon, many students were outraged. The next day hundreds of them walked out in protest; as word spread through social media, students from seven other area high schools joined in. High school and college students in nearby Portland staged their own protest march later that week.

White fans at a high school girls’ soccer game in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, started chanting “Trump, build that wall” at the predominantly Black and Latina Beloit Memorial team. A few days later, the neighboring Evansville girls soccer team posted a video condemning the racist incident and expressing support for the Beloit team. At Beloit’s Big Eight Conference game against Janesville Craig, players from both teams stood side by side during pregame introductions as a show of solidarity against racism.

Trump and Our Classrooms

The “curriculum” of the presidential campaign inevitably finds its way into our schools and classrooms. As we reported in our summer issue, a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that the campaign is “producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions . . . [and] an increase in bullying, harassment, and intimidation of students whose races, religions, or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates on the campaign trail.”

Trump’s ascendancy parallels the growth of extreme right-wing parties throughout much of Europe, where a toxic stew of austerity, economic anxiety, and the refugee crisis has fueled xenophobic and neo-fascist rallies, electoral victories, and violence.

His popularity also reflects the growth of racism and inequality in the United States, which has been exacerbated by policies pursued by both the Republican and Democratic parties. Internationally, pro-war policies have led to unspeakable suffering, wasted hundreds of billions of dollars, fostered terrorism, and destabilized whole swaths of the planet. Bipartisan “free trade” policies have thrown people out of work in the United States at the same time they have increased inequality abroad. Domestically the “war on drugs,” “three strikes,” zero-tolerance discipline policies, and other criminal justice “reforms” have led to unprecedented rates of mass incarceration of African Americans.

At the same time, we have witnessed an inspiring resurgence of demands for an end to police violence, for racial justice, for climate justice, for gender justice, for economic justice, for immigration justice. There’s a lot to talk about.

The polarization and racism of this election season make it especially important to create safe classrooms where students engage deeply in critical analysis. Of course, a student who is a member of a targeted group should never be singled out as a “spokesperson.” And perhaps it’s time to rethink traditional approaches to teaching about elections.

For example, many teachers routinely hold debates with students representing candidates from different parties (more than just the Democratic and Republican parties, we hope). However, this year such debates might be counterproductive. We don’t want to create classroom forums where students-as-candidates could repeat racist rants, nor should students be subjected to them. Slogans like “build that wall” are essentially racist slurs; “jail the bitch” is a sexist slur.

A better curricular route might be to look at the premises underlying key campaign issues — immigration from Mexico, for example — by asking questions: What is the history of the border between the United States and Mexico? How have initiatives like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) affected Mexican farmers and workers, and influenced immigration from Mexico? Who benefits and who is hurt — on both sides of the border — by “free trade?” (See “Who’s Stealing Our Jobs?”, and the Rethinking Schools book The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration.) After this kind of study, students can more easily recognize a slogan like “build that wall” for the ignorant and hateful demagoguery that it is.

Instead of limiting classroom conversations to the issues as the campaigns define them, teachers can draw on the perspectives of activists who call into question the narrow two-party discourse and offer rich critiques of the racism, xenophobia, sexism, and Islamophobia heard on the campaign trail — and sometimes at school. (See “As a Teacher and a Daughter: The Impact of Islamophobia,” by Nassim Elbardouh, summer 2016.) This is the perfect time to invite local community and campus activists into our classrooms.

The issue of voter suppression is particularly relevant this election. President Obama’s election eight years ago and the changing demographics of the United States motivated Republican legislators and a conservative Supreme Court to roll back historic victories of the Civil Rights Movement. Teaching about the campaigns for the right to vote — for women, people of color, residents of Washington, DC, or Puerto Rico — exposes the racism and sexism endemic in our nation’s history, as well as the ongoing struggle to turn the United States into a democracy. It also opens up discussions about who can and can’t vote today, why it’s important to vote if you can, and ways to make your voice heard if you can’t.

What is particularly powerful are stories — from the past and from today — about youth working together against racism and other forms of oppression. Resources abound: children’s picture books, young adult novels, short stories, poetry, videos. Check out the archives for Rethinking Schoolsmagazine, our books, and the Zinn Education Project for ideas. Anti-racist teaching is important in all subject areas, not just social studies. Math classes can tackle the racial inequality of the criminal justice system, language arts classes can address gentrification, science classes can focus on environmental justice (see “Lead Poisoning: Bringing Social Justice to Chemistry,” by Karen Zaccor).

And then there’s action beyond the classroom walls. In addition to powerful examples like those of the students in Wisconsin and Oregon, teachers in North Carolina demonstrated at a Clinton rally where Obama was scheduled to speak. They demanded an end to deportations and that Clinton and Obama do everything in their power to release detained refugee youth.

Progressive school board members in various cities are promoting systematic approaches to fighting racism. In Milwaukee, despite objections by right-wing talk show hosts, the school board passed a Black Lives Matter resolution and put nearly half a million dollars in this year’s budget to fund implementation. In San Francisco, Albuquerque, Portland, Oregon, and other communities, educators, students, parents, and community activists have come together to fight racism through similar initiatives, such as ethnic studies programs. Many of these draw inspiration from Tucson, Arizona’s hugely successful Mexican American Studies program, outlawed in 2010 by conservative lawmakers. These are the kind of long-term, institutional responses that educators, students, and community members are fighting for.

We need to seize on teachable moments to address racism and white supremacy during this election cycle and, after that, continue and increase our efforts. From the dinner table to the classroom, from staff meetings to school boards, educators need to find ways to put the issue of race and racism front and center and keep it there.

We know time is short before the elections, but the damage wrought by racist comments and slurs fueled by the campaign will be long-lasting. And the anti-racist teaching that emerges because of thoughtful parents and educators — and from students who demand more relevant curricula — will flower and bear fruit long after November’s election. ◼


Originally published at www.rethinkingschools.org.

Editorial: Teaching as Defiance

Originally published in Rethinking Schools VOLUME 29, ISSUE 4 — SUMMER 2015.Editorial1Recently, we posted an article at the Rethinking Schools Facebook page that listed reasons why parents should opt their children out of standardized testing, including “standardized tests narrow the curriculum.” The article went on:

What’s on the test is what’s taught. PARCC and Smarter Balanced [versions of the Common Core tests] only evaluate math and literacy, and thus science, social studies, and the arts are lost to spend maximum instruction time on the tested material. There is no time for creativity, collaboration, and curiosity.

A Rethinking Schools reader, Texas educator Noreen Naseem Rodriguez, wrote to say: not so fast. Rodriguez pointed out that teachers are still “creative and collaborative, and encourage curiosity in spite of the high-stakes testing environment.” She argued that we need to distinguish between what teachers are being pushed to do and what they are actually doing. Yes, the tests have made it more difficult to teach critically and authentically, but Rodriguez pointed out that simply because people in positions of power want something to happen, doesn’t make it so.

Rodriguez is right. Teachers continue to resist the high-stakes testing machine by teaching what matters, by doing everything possible not to narrow the curriculum to test prep. And when we say that the corporate school reform agenda has killed critical, imaginative teaching for social justice, we have declared defeat while the fight rages around us.

Since its inception almost 30 years ago, Rethinking Schools’ mission has been the defense and transformation of public schools. These go hand in hand. Yes, we need to fight the myriad ways that the forces of privatization and privilege seek to discredit and destroy public education. But one front in that defense is the effort to revitalize classroom life, to ensure that students’ time in school is worthwhile—for students personally, and for the larger communities and society they belong to. As we argued in the first edition of Rethinking Our Classrooms: Teaching for Equity and Justice, back in 1994, classrooms should be grounded in the lives of our students; critical; multicultural, antiracist and pro-justice; participatory and experiential; hopeful, joyful, kind, and visionary; activist; culturally sensitive; and academically rigorous. We set ourselves the task of creating curriculum and finding teaching stories to bring these principles to life.

Teaching to the Tests

Is this kind of teaching made much harder by today’s standardized testing mandates? No doubt. Valuable classroom time has been hijacked by the tests and test prep. New legislation and policies threaten teachers with bad evaluations or worse should their students fail to perform adequately on the tests. In some school districts, armies of clipboard-carrying curriculum cops circulate through classrooms to enforce scripted teaching strategies. These are tough times, and we do not mean to minimize the power of this bullying to stifle good teaching.

The corporate school reformers’ vision of a successful classroom was on display this spring in a front page New York Times investigative article on New York’s Success Academy, the charter school chain founded by Eva Moskowitz. Politicians and millionaire philanthropists have championed Moskowitz’s program as a model for education reform. The article, by Kate Taylor (“At Charters, High Scores and Polarizing Tactics”), paints a harrowing portrait of classroom life, with every teaching move subordinated to standardized tests. An email from an assistant principal (a “leadership resident”) at Success Academy Harlem 2 to her 4th-grade teachers in the wake of disappointing results on a three-day practice test offers a glimpse: “You must demand every single minute,” she wrote. “We can NOT let up on them. . . . Any scholar who is not using the plan of attack (test-taking strategies) will go to effort academy (detention), have their parent called, and will miss electives. This is serious business, and there has to be misery felt [by] the kids who are not doing what is expected of them.”

Teaching for Life

Since Rethinking Schools began publishing in 1986, there have always been odious requirements that teachers have confronted and resisted: basal readers, detailed “scope and sequence” instructions, “competencies” to be met, “anchor assignments,” required textbooks, and overbearing administrators. Indeed, in the very first issue of Rethinking Schools, RS co-founder Rita Tenorio described how she resisted the imposition of a Scott Foresman basal reader on her kindergarten students. Instead she provided experiential, playful, and collaborative literacy activities far more appropriate for young children than a dreary succession of worksheets.

And today, in the midst of the launch of Common Core tests, teachers continue the resistance. Sometimes this is an individual who defies the system to teach toward her ideals. During a dinner conversation, a 2nd-grade teacher in New Mexico told Rethinking Schools editors how she brings authentic literacy lessons to her classroom: “They have taken over our literacy block with a mandated, scripted curriculum, but I use read-aloud time to engage students in reading and writing that matters.”

Sometimes it’s a collective effort. In Portland, Oregon, teachers at several high schools are collaboratively constructing and teaching curriculum. Social studies teachers at one school, for example, created a unit on the Russian Revolution that was taught in 14 classes. At another school, language arts teachers developed and taught curriculum on local school desegregation as a follow-up to reading Warriors Don’t Cry when a student asked, “So what happened in Portland?” After they taught the unit, the teachers traveled to each other’s classrooms to discuss revisions and adaptations, and to look at student work. Two articles in this issue of the magazine, Jerica Coffey’s “Storytelling as Resistance” and Stephanie Cariaga’s “Research as Healing,” are the result of an inquiry group created by teachers at a school in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles (see Collaborating to Capture Community Resilience).

Throughout the country, teachers are constructing curriculum that challenges students to think instead of memorize, to connect their lives to broader social and ecological issues. Through this kind of engaged scholarship, students discover the joy of learning—joy that rarely accompanies a lesson that starts “Today, I will learn. . .”

This resistance is fueled by networks of social justice teachers in groups like Teachers 4 Social Justice in San Francisco, the New York Collective of Radical Educators, Chicago Teachers for Social Justice, the Educators Network for Social Justice in Milwaukee, Teaching for Change, the Oregon Writing Project, and Free Minds, Free People. These organizations, and many others, inspire critical teaching through conferences, workshops, and inquiry-to-action groups—defying the corporate push toward standardization.

Rethinking Schools’ two latest books, A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis and Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice offer further proof that teachers across the country are working with one another to address vital social issues at the same time they strive to develop academic skills. Howard Zinn famously said that “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” When it comes to the climate crisis, endless war, growing income inequality, and the disregard for the lives of people of color as shown by the regularity of police killings, the social train we’re on is headed off a cliff. Teachers need to do our part to stop and redirect that train.

As we oppose the hegemony of standardized tests, the budget cuts, the school closures, the pro-charter legislation, the infiltration of Teach For America, and other privatization schemes, we also should demand teaching and learning conditions that allow us to create an alternative vision of classroom life. In order to design curriculum that speaks to students’ lives, we need more prep time, more time for teacher collaboration, more professional development worthy of its name. We need to nurture a grassroots conversation about social justice teaching—one that refutes the notion that learning and high test scores are synonymous; and one that opts for joy over misery.

Rethinking Schools encourages teachers to continue to subvert the test-and-punish system by doing everything we can to teach for the benefit of our students—and the world. Every child-centered, socially aware lesson plan is a gesture of defiance to those who endeavor to make test scores the sole criterion of educational success. This kind of teaching that matters is part of the broader struggle to defend and transform public schools.

Aside

Black with a Capital B

 

Rethinking Schools began as a newspaper—a tabloid. Most newspapers followed the Associated Press Stylebook, so we did, too. That included a lowercase b when referring to Black culture or individuals. Over the years, that made various writers and editors uncomfortable, but we pointed to the problems with inconsistency in our archives as a reason not to change.

Prompted in part by the Black Lives Matter movement, we decided to revisit our usage at a recent editorial board meeting. We based our discussion on a 2014 op-ed piece by Lori L. Tharps in the New York Times, “The Case for Black with a Capital B.” She builds a strong historical and political case:

Ever since African people arrived in this country, we have had to fight for the right to a proper name. Upon arrival in the “New World,” we were all collectively deemed Africans, even though we came from different countries, cultures, and tribes. Very soon after, British colonists borrowed the Spanish term for black, and we became negros, negars, nigras and blacks—anything oppositional to the supposed purity of whiteness.

After emancipation, as many individuals replaced their slave surnames with ones of their own devising, like Freedman or Freeman, they still bore the painful legacy of the labels they’d been given: black, negro, and colored. . . .

In the mid-1900s, W. E. B. Du Bois began a letter-writing campaign, demanding that book publishers, newspaper editors, and magazines capitalize the N in Negro when referring to Black people. . . . The New York Timesrefused his request, as did most other newspapers. In 1929, when the editor for the Encyclopedia Britannicainformed Du Bois that Negro would be lowercased in the article he had submitted for publication, Du Bois quickly wrote a heated retort that called “the use of a small letter for the name of 12 million Americans and 200 million human beings a personal insult.”

Tharps says that editor changed his mind, as did many other mainstream publications, including the New York Times. She then notes the changes that the Black Power Movement of the 1960s had on how African Americans see and name themselves. She concludes: “If we’ve traded Negro for Black, why was that first letter demoted back to lowercase, when the argument had already been won?”

We found her arguments convincing. Editorial board member Jesse Hagopian explained it well: “Black with a capital B was won through political struggle. If we lowercase the b, we’re minimizing the importance of that collective, historical struggle.” In this issue of the magazine, and henceforth, we will write Black with a capital B. As always, we’re interested in your comments.  

From Rethinking Schools latest summer issue.

Black Students’ Lives Matter: Building the school-to-justice pipeline

By the editors of Rethinking Schools

Read the full article on our website: rethinkingschools.org.

David Bacon

We’re at a tipping point. The killings of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Renisha McBride—and far too many other African Americans—have put to rest the myth of a “post-racial” America. In death, these Black youth—shot down with impunity because of the color of their skin—have provided a tragically thorough education about police terror and institutional racism, and ignited the Black Lives Matter movement.

The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was originally created by queer Black women activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi as a call to action after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin in July 2013. Their battle cry went viral and then turned into a national uprising when Darren Wilson, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager. The movement exploded when Staten Island police officer Daniel Pantaleo was not indicted for choking to death Eric Garner.

As the Black Lives Matter movement has grown, Black students have played a pivotal role. For example, at Seattle’s Garfield High School, some 1,000 students, led by the Black Student Union (BSU), walked out the day after the non-indictment of Wilson was announced. As 17-year-old Issa George, vice president of the Garfield BSU, told the Seattle Times: “This is our time, as youth, to speak. . . . The waking up that America has done in the past couple of months—something that us as youth get to witness and get to be a part of—has been extremely powerful.”

College, high school, and even middle school students have staged protests and school walkouts in cities around the country. According to reporting by the Nation’s George Joseph and others, student activists of the Baltimore Algebra Project held a die-in when their local school board voted to shut down the first of five schools. The board fled, and the students took over their chairs to lead a community forum on the closures.

Black students take these risks because they know their lives and futures are at stake—from police violence on the street; from the dismantling of their communities through foreclosures, gentrification, and unemployment; and from the destruction of their schools through corporate reform.

The School-to-Grave Pipeline

For the past decade, social justice educators have decried the school-to-prison pipeline: a series of interlocking policies—whitewashed, often scripted curriculum that neglects the contributions and struggles of people of color; zero tolerance and racist suspension and expulsion policies; and high-stakes tests—that funnel kids from the classroom to the cellblock. But, with the recent high-profile deaths of young African Americans, a “school-to-grave pipeline” is coming into focus. Mike Brown had just graduated from high school and was preparing to go to college when police killed him. According to a 2012 investigation by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a Black person is killed by law enforcement, security guards, or vigilantes every 28 hours. A recent ProPublica report found that “Blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.”

The Black Lives Matter movement inspires us to fight the school-to-grave pipeline as an example of structural racism, after decades in which anti-racism has been defined in excessively personal terms through anti-bias or diversity training. Anti-bias work focuses primarily, and often exclusively, on internal and interpersonal racism. In other words, if you strive to not be racist in your personal relationships, that’s good enough.

There is definitely a place for personal reflection and discussion of racist attitudes and beliefs. And there is no doubt that many individual police officers need anti-bias training and to be held responsible for their actions. But that’s not enough, as the statistics on police violence, incarceration, school suspension and dropout rates, inequitable school financing, and school closures make clear. These are all sharp indicators of structural racism. When Michelle Alexander says mass incarceration is “the new Jim Crow,” she insists that the racist structures that have existed since slavery have mutated and changed, but they have not been eradicated. We can’t understand, teach about, or change what’s happening in this country if we don’t face this fact. And our students know that. Being an effective teacher in today’s society means taking the Black Lives Matter movement seriously.

For all the “students first” rhetoric of the corporate education reformers—who claim their policies are directed at closing the “achievement gap”—they are conspicuously absent from the Black Lives Matter movement. In fact, the corporate reform agenda is in direct conflict with the goals of the movement. In city after city, Black students are those most affected by the decimation of neighborhood schools, the “no excuses” discipline and rote teaching of charters like KIPP, the substitution of endless test prep for meaningful curriculum, and the imposition of two-years-and-I’m-gone Teach For America corps members on our highest needs students.

Black Lives Matter doesn’t just mean Black people don’t want to be shot down in the streets by unaccountable police. As anti-racist teachers and students, we need to expand the slogan to include:

  • Stop closing schools in Black neighborhoods.
  • Fund schools equitably.
  • Support African American studies programs and substantive multicultural curriculum.

When activists staged a Black Lives Matter die-in in Detroit last December, Will Daniels, from United Students Against Sweatshops, told the Nation: “As a Black student, my rationale for doing the die-in was that structural racism causes not only police brutality, but also the starving of majority Black schools. This is a subtler form of violence.”

Let Black Children Be Children

The murder of Tamir Rice exposes a connection between individual racism and structural racism with important implications for teachers. Tamir was only 12 years old when police showed up at the Cleveland park where he was playing with a toy gun and shot him down within two seconds of their arrival. When his 14-year-old sister ran over, she was tackled to the ground and handcuffed. The officer who called in the shooting described Tamir to the dispatcher as a “Black male, maybe 20.”

Overestimating the age, size, and culpability of Black children is a widespread phenomenon, according to The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children, based on research led by Phillip Atiba Goff and Matthew Christian Jackson of UCLA. One of their studies involved 264 mostly white female undergraduates who were asked to assess the age and innocence of white, Black, and Latino boys. The students saw the Black boys as more culpable and overestimated their age by 4.5 years. “Perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race and, for Black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults,” said Jackson. “Black children may be viewed as adults when they’re just 13 years old.”

It’s not much of a stretch to see how this affects Black children in schools where the majority of their teachers are not African American. Any time teachers or administrators see Black children as older than they are, “just being teenagers” (or pre-teens, or little kids) becomes something threatening that has to be controlled or disciplined. How can children grow and learn if the adults around them see them as older and “guiltier” than they are? What will it take for school communities to eradicate this deeply embedded prejudice?

Why Not “All Lives Matter?”

As the Black Lives Matter movement has grown, some participants have questioned whether “All Lives Matter” is a more inclusive slogan. Although we recognize the serious impact of racism and other forms of oppression on many groups of people in the United States, we think it’s important to understand and talk with others about the historical and current realities behind this specific demand. As Alicia Garza, one of the movement’s originators, explains:

When we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. . . . It is an acknowledgment that one million Black people are locked in cages in this country. . . . It is an acknowledgment that Black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families. . . . #BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean your life isn’t important—it means that Black lives, which are seen as without value within White supremacy, are important to your liberation. Given the disproportionate impact state violence has on Black lives, we understand that when Black people in this country get free, the benefits will be wide-reaching and transformative for society as a whole.

A civil disobedience demonstration that closed down the federal building in Oakland during Martin Luther King Jr. weekend highlighted the connections. Behind a banner reading “Third World for Black Power,” protesters identified themselves as Arabs, Filipinas/os, Latinas/os, Koreans, Chinese, Palestinians, and South Asians “for Black resistance.” As Filipina activist Rhonda Ramiro said: “The wealth accumulated through the enslavement of Black people in the United States enabled the United States to go around the world and colonize countries like the Philippines. We see our struggle for independence as linked 100 percent.”

Within that framework, how teachers apply this understanding will obviously vary from classroom to classroom, depending on how old the children are, their experience and knowledge about the issues involved, and the level of community that has been built in the classroom.

How to Make Black Lives Matter in Our Schools

So what does all this mean in individual classrooms and schools? Here are a few ideas for bringing Black Lives Matter into our teaching:

>>Read the rest of the article on our website! 

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