As the nation and the world continue to witness unprecedented chants of Black Lives Matter and calls to end systemic racism, one cannot help but feel guarded optimism.
As large segments of whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asian, Native, and mixed-race Americans fight for change it is easy to see the potential and promise of what an inclusive, multiracial democracy can look like.
Peaceful protests of a cross section of Americans demanding change at a time when unarmed Black Americans are being killed offers us all a hope that we have a brighter future ahead of us. Young people have been an integral part of the peaceful protests. Schools should watch, listen, and learn from this moment because many of the voices on the front lines have been school-aged youth fighting for equality, justice, and respect for all people.
Moreover, many school districts, like corporations across the nation, have issued statements and made declarations that they support Black Lives Matter, they will do more in the fight for racial justice, and be more reflective about how to best support Black students.
These declarations are encouraging and can offer guarded optimism, but let’s be clear, a healthy dose of skepticism is in order when schools come out and make such statements when it is safe to do so when chanting “Black Lives Matter” has gone mainstream, and when the entire world is saying that anti-Black racism is a problem.
As a teacher and author who has spent decades pushing for schools to recognize the structural disadvantages and overt racism that affects Black students and other students of color for years, only to be met with fierce resistance, this moment is confusing to say the least. As someone who has heard teachers and administrators claim that their schools are not racist, and that the problem with Black students is lack of motivation, no discipline, apathy, or no parent involvement, this moment is hard to digest.
If schools are really serious about addressing anti-Black racism beyond this mainstream moment then there will have to be a much greater investment in different policies, practices, and beliefs when the fervor dissipates.
When the marches stop, schools will need to look at themselves hard in the mirror and ask, how can we say Black Lives Matter when we are complicit in Black student failure? When the protests come to an end, schools will have to ask themselves, how can we state that we want to end systemic racism when many policies disproportionately punish, suspend, and systematically fail Black students?
As the chants stop, schools must ask why have they allowed some teachers who have deeply rooted anti-Black ideas and beliefs towards Black students to teach them, yet they never call them on it, despite repeated overtures from Black students and parents about these individuals.
In short, this moment makes it easy for schools to say that Black Lives Matter. This moment has made it comfortable for schools to say that racism is real and that they will stand up against it, but when the lights go down, will schools do the really heavy lifting to examine school curriculum which often excludes Black history, life and culture?
It will be vital for schools to take a look at the make-up of teachers, counselors, and administrators at their schools and ask “Where are the Black people?” Putting in place a concerted strategic plan to hire, support, and promote more Black educators would reflect a serious commitment to ending Black exclusion.
And perhaps the most damning action that we can end is the persistent apathy of too many teachers who just do not care about Black student achievement. These are frequently nice people — who cover the entire racial spectrum — yet they stand by with low expectations of Black students, do not teach them, have no rigor in their instruction or coursework, provide them busywork every day, and essentially give them permission to fail.
All administrators know who these teachers are, because students and other teachers know who they are. It is these individuals who do more damage to Black children than can be quantified. The passivity and indifference about Black children’s education harms them in countless ways. If schools truly believe that Black Lives Matter, then allowing passive indifference, situated in low expectations must be publicly shamed and called to task.
Will these steps be easy? Of course not. Will conversations about change be comfortable? They usually are not. Will there be resistance and denial? You can guarantee it.
But this is the work of protests and change. Remember it is one thing to fight for eradicating racism when the wind is in your sails and you can offer slogans and chants about justice, but it is something different when the wind is in your face, and the uphill battle for justice seems to be a narrow road with few supporters, intense opposition, fierce resistance, and no end in sight.
So welcome to the team, educators who are on board for the fight for racial justice. We truly hope that you are here for the movement, and not just for the moment.
If you are truly dedicated to racial justice in education, recognize that it is not for the faint of heart, not for the thin-skinned, and is not for those looking for easy and comfortable victories. It is a long, tireless, and often grueling road. But it is a fight that is worth our time, effort, and energy, because our students’ lives are at stake.
Tyrone C. Howard is a professor at the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies at UCLA. He is also the Pritzker Family Endowed Chair in Education to Strengthen Children & Families and director of the UCLA Black Male Institute.